However, despite a premise that appears rife with comedic possibilities on the surface, I found myself cringing more often than laughing, foolishly hoping it would get better.
Brad Harris (Jack Black), a 35 year old divorcee who works his mediocre job while still living at home, acts as our guide through 365 days of fervent and frenzied bird-watching (or “birding” as he is keen to remind us).
Also travelling the world on the bird-search are Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a superstar business executive-cum-family man on the brink of retirement, and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the reigning champion of the birding world, intent on defending his title at any cost.
While Kenny struggles to keep his marriage intact in the face of a threat to his precious birding reputation, Brad and Stu form a friendly alliance in mutual desire to remove Kenny from his first-place perch.
Sounds like we have ourselves a movie, doesn't it? On paper, perhaps, which may account for the popular success of the book upon which the film was based. Story-wise, the film doesn't seem to encounter problems: the characters are interesting and relatable and the plot moves along at a decent pace.
Furthermore, the cast is positively teeming with familiar, reliable faces. Aside from the stars, we get to spend time with Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Joel McHale, and Dianne Wiest.
So where did this film go wrong? While it's difficult to know who to blame, the result is unmistakable. At no point during this year have I seen a film to which the term “watered down” applied so appropriately.
Simply put, it watches like a Hallmark film; a cheap facsimile of real life experiences bereft of any depth or subtlety. The problems and challenges of the three central characters are telegraphed to the audience so plainly that it feels as if the filmmakers are talking down to us. Brad's pervasive voiceover narration makes this especially clear. It feels as if all we are afforded at any given time is an artless summary of what the movie should have been.
What's worst of all is that the film isn't particularly funny. We're provided with Owen Wilson and Jack Black, two of Hollywood's premier comic staples, along with a veritable comedy colossus in Steve Martin, and yet their talents go to waste. Martin is the most disappointing, however, playing a boring character made only worse by the fact that we miss Martin playing to his strengths as a zany goofball or frustrated stress-case. He proves once again that although he is among the most unique and talented comic minds of our time, he is sadly not one of the most agile.
Although there is something to be said for “The Big Year” as a travel movie, with countless fantastic landscapes within which our heroes hunt for birds. It also achieves a minor success in its un-ironic depiction of birders, giving some dignity to the hobby and making it more endearing than alienating.
However, even a touch of directorial flair (think Jason Reitman lite) from David Frankel could not save this film. If you're looking for a comedy with characters who have stakes attached to their struggles, move a theatre over and watch “50/50” and spare your rosy memories of Black, Wilson, and Martin.