All evidence suggests that Steve Martin contracted the comedy-suppressing disease that explains so much about his later career sometime between the ambitious early-1991 film L.A. Story and the Christmas 1991 release Father Of The Bride, an uninspired remake of the Vincente Minnelli classic that heavily features the telltale symptom of Martin’s Concerned-Dad Face. Martin fights his way back to health every once in a while, and until now, his condition hasn’t seemed infectious. But in The Big Year, a fictionalized adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book of the same name, co-stars Owen Wilson and Jack Black appear on the verge of succumbing to the same terminal blandness that’s gripped Martin for so long.
The three star as avid birders, each on the verge of embarking on the titular “big year,” a yearlong, continent-spanning quest to see who can spot the most species of birds in North America. Martin plays a captain of industry on the verge of retirement who keeps getting sucked back into the corporate world. As he embarks on his big year, he faces competition from Wilson, a former champ whose hypercompetitive approach to birding has earned him a reputation as the pastime’s bad boy. Black, who provides twinkly-eyed narration, co-stars as a workaday divorcee with bad eating habits and an uncanny talent for spotting rare birds. Over the course of the year, paths cross and uneasy alliances form as they traipse from the Gulf Of Mexico—where a freak storm blows in an uncommon assortment of birds—to Attu, at the far reaches of the Aleutian Islands.
At least director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) captures some nice scenery. Otherwise, there’s little to fill out a film that at least has the good sense not to take on any more dramatic weight than its hollow bones can handle—each character works through some personal issues, but they’re fairly pat. Problem is, it doesn’t offer much comedy instead. Or for that matter, much insight into birding. The Big Year never captures what draws these characters to their passion, and as this granny-pleasing butterscotch candy of a movie drags from one end of the calendar to the other, it starts to feel as if they might as well be collecting stamps. Surely a movie about that couldn’t be any less funny.