If you’re in the mood for some feathery fluff of the happy-sappy-and-not-wholly-unpleasant sort and need a break from snark, there is “The Big Year.” This weirdly whimsical family comedy about competitive birders stars Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, and, yes, the humor is exactly as nerdy as that sounds.
Did you hear the one about the pink-footed goose …?
When toning down a comic trio that leans toward edgy to PG-lite, the humor that results is more of the mildly mirthful bland, um, brand. Thus, do not expect sidesplitting, tear-producing moments of unbridled laughter, but do plan on chortles. (Hey, it’s about birds, bird calls abound, I’m chortling, so sue me.)
As the story begins, the three guys are strangers setting out on a quest to be the year’s top birder. Referred to by aficionados as going for “the big year,” it’s a contest of who spots the most species of birds in North America in a single year. There’s no prize money, it’s run on an honor system and it’s all very hush, hush, don’t ask, don’t tell if you are having a go at the title. Wouldn’t want to show your hand to the competition, now would you?
The guys are in varying stages of modern adult-male meltdowns, which means they’ve come to the party with flannel shirts, binoculars, birding notebooks and something to prove. Black plays Brad Harris, a lowly computer programmer, divorced and going nowhere with no one, but a genius at identifying bird calls. Martin is Stu Preissler, a captain of industry at the top of his game, now looking to retire and give in to his weekend birding obsession. Wilson is Kenny Bostick, the reigning birder with a record 732 sightings in one year but fearful that someone else might overtake him. And, as simple as one, two, three, writer Howard Franklin (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Quick Change”) has covered the basic middle-through-upper class white-guy types.
To handle this very quirky and fundamentally decent world, director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) has traded in every stitch of his high-end designer style and all his cutting ways. Instead, he and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (“The Hangover” and “I Love You, Man”) offer up a woodsy amusement park that has the feel of something plucked right out of the ‘50s “Leave It to Beaver” school, when things like the honor system actually worked. Or so we thought.
The conflicts arise as Stu, Brad and Bostick (no one calls him Kenny except the wife played by Rosamund Pike, who wishes he’d stay home long enough to do a little chick-producing nesting) sort through their issues and try to outwit and out-watch one another to the top.
The scenery is beautiful as they crisscross the country following the latest tip, and the filmmaker makes time to let those so inclined drink in all that outdoor splendor. As it happens, there are quite a lot of bird life lessons to be plucked — loyalty, endurance, don’t count the ordinary bird out — and even more just plain bird lore worth dispensing. It’s done cleverly for the most part, with close-ups of real rare fowl along with some facts, or sometimes just a John Madden-style playbook scrawl noting a sighting across a shot of the kind of pristine countryside you can forget still exists.
As with any sport, things can get dirty (chum is just nasty stuff) and one’s character is tested. Family ties also tug at each of the guys. Stu’s life seems picture perfect, with JoBeth Williams as his very understanding wife, but there’s a grandchild on the way. Bostick has that procreation problem. Brad is the most complex in this very un-complex world — his dad (Brian Dennehy) thinks his birding is nuts, his mom (Dianne Wiest) is determined her boy will live his dream, and Ellie (Rashida Jones) is a bird-calling sweetheart whom Brad has his eye on.
Nothing surprising happens, really. Friendships are formed and fractured, tough choices are made, understanding and insight are woven in between those chortles I mentioned earlier. No one does a particularly outstanding job, but no one does too badly either. Black only arches that mischief-signaling eyebrow once or twice, Wilson does affable affably and Martin plays fatherly with restraint (or is he simply bored?).
“The Big Year” might not soar (and you do wonder what fun Christopher “Best in Show” Guest might have had with the competitive birding world), but there is some harmless pleasure to be found when feathers aren’t ruffled, when the fowl is not foul.