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Movie Review

The Big Year

For the birds, in a good way

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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The coming-attractions trailers make “The Big Year’’ look like the next career rung down for Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson - a plotless compendium of pratfalls featuring three tired stars. Actually, it’s not that movie at all but a sloppy and rather sweet human comedy aimed at parents, grandparents, nature-lovers, and other people ill-served by Hollywood. So why the preview bait-and-switch? The studio is terrified you’ll find out “The Big Year’’ is about birding.

The 2004 book the movie’s based on - Mark Obmascik’s “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession’’ - is a very funny nonfiction account of the major prize in competitive bird-watching: the right to claim seeing the most species in a single year. Howard Franklin’s script changes the names of the three main contenders and ups the broad sentimentality, but otherwise changes little.

Successful roofing contractor Ken Bostick (Wilson) is the cocky reigning champion (last year’s count: 732), who regularly ignores his exasperated wife (Rosamund Pike - wait, is he nuts?) to hop on a plane and track down a blue-footed booby. Stu Preissler (Martin) is the CEO on the verge of retirement, aching to leave the deal-making behind and get out in the field. Brad Harris (Black) is the poor relation in this crew - an unkempt nuclear power plant engineer whose blue-collar dad (Brian Dennehy; for once, a movie’s DNA seems believable) thinks his son’s quest is for the birds.

A “big year’’ is not for the faint of heart or the light of wallet, and the movie is upfront about Brad’s financial scramble. But the movie’s more about the fluky camaraderie of birding and the part of that community that treats it as something between a sport, a duel, and a critical measure of self-worth. So Stu and Brad join forces to nab more species than the insufferably smug Ken, and Ken delights in psyching his rivals out - for him, the mind games are almost more fun than the chase.

There’s a marvelously cruel comedy in here - a sort of feathered “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’’ - but director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,’’ “Marley & Me’’) isn’t interested in making it. “The Big Year’’ follows its three leads as they struggle with their obsession and try to balance the many people in their lives. Will Stu get pulled back into the Manhattan fast track by his second-in-command (Kevin Pollak), and will he appreciate his unbelievably patient wife (JoBeth Williams)? Will Brad get a date with fellow birder Ellie (Rashida Jones)? Will Ken’s marriage outlast his need to bag a snowy owl?

If anything, “The Big Year’’ plays like Ron Howard’s “Parenthood’’ with birds instead of children, and as the movie crisscrosses the continent from Texas to the Aleutians, from Oregon to Florida, it makes a pleasant case for following one’s bliss. The locations are often gorgeous and the three stars’ worst impulses are held in check: Black tamps down the runty obnoxiousness, Wilson the Malibu smarm, Martin the pandering. They’re good company. So, in its fubsy way, is the movie.

A few audience members - those of us who own binoculars and a copy of both Sibley and Peterson - might be wondering about the birds. “The Big Year’’ plays it fast and loose here, with too many close-ups that are obviously computer-generated and a great spotted woodpecker that has no business being anywhere south of Alaska, even as an accidental. Howard’s script is more successful at conveying the fellowship of birders - the broad spectrum of human species, from nerd to jock, from young to old, who look at these things with feathers and, through them, see life itself, pulsing and infinitely varied.

It gets the comedy of birding, too - how a woman as lovely as Jones can look perfectly ridiculous imitating the call of an Audubon’s oriole. “Golf’s a hobby,’’ sneers Ken the rock star at one point. “Birding’s a calling.’’ “The Big Year’’ understands the absurdity of that statement and the beauty of it, too.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

THE BIG YEAR

Directed by: David Frankel

Written by: Howard Franklin, based on the book by Mark Obmascik

Starring: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin, Rosamund Pike, JoBeth Williams, Rashida Jones, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: PG (language and some sensuality)

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