The Big Year is such a gentle, warmly genial comedy that it almost feels like a relic from a more-innocent, less-cynical era. It's a rare beast among movies that vie for audience attention by attempting to be the loudest, brashest, and raunchiest at the box office: a likable, PG-rated comedy that deals with some grown-up issues in a way that kids can easily digest, and subverts familiar plot elements enough to avoid becoming too predictable for adult viewers. Even so, it's hard to determine exactly who the filmmakers had in mind as their target audience while making The Big Year, but perhaps that's part of the reason why it's so difficult to simply dismiss it as inconsequential. It could be that we've just gotten a bit too quick and too comfortable with categorizing films in order to sell them to the desired audience. It's almost as if The Big Year was produced to remind us that there are still some films that a family can enjoy together, even if they weren't produced to appeal to any specific demographic.
As El Nino sends an extraordinary variety of rare birds flying up into the U.S., devoted bird-watchers Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), Brad Harris (Jack Black), and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) each devote an entire year of their lives to spotting the most species, in an attempt to surpass the world record of 732 (currently held by Bostick). A successful businessman preparing for his second retirement, Stu is encouraged to pursue his passion by his supportive wife Edith (JoBeth Williams). Meanwhile, Brad's gruff father Raymond (Brian Dennehy) continually belittles his son's obsessive bird-watching as his kindly mother Brenda (Dianne Wiest) quietly bankrolls her son's big adventure, and Kenny's wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) struggles with her suspicion that her husband cares more about watching the skies than becoming a father. And while Stu, Brad, and Kenny all deny that they're competing for the world record -- for fear of motivating the others -- as their bird watch progresses, all three gradually discover that sometimes winning doesn't necessarily mean coming in first place.
Adapted from Mark Obmascik's 1998 nonfiction book by screenwriter Howard Franklin (Quick Change, The Man Who Knew Too Little), The Big Year straddles the line between comedy and drama in a manner that, while not altogether unsuccessful, somewhat shortchanges both in its quest to find a poignant middle ground. Though the competition is indeed stiff between the three devoted bird-watchers, the lack of a clearly defined antagonist robs the storyline of any real dramatic weight until the final act. That said, there's still plenty of fun to be had watching Wilson, decked out in hideous dayglow paisley, continually try to distract his two chief rivals from surpassing his record. Black, meanwhile, is endearingly awkward as he attempts to break the ice with another, equally obsessive bird-watcher (Rashida Jones), and Martin's earnest performance as an aging businessman beginning to reassess his priorities is the heart of The Big Year.
Though there are plenty of rare breeds and majestic sights to behold in The Big Year, it's obvious as the side relationships begin to overshadow the central conflict that the film is about bigger issues than who gets the highest score. Likewise, Franklin's talent for pulling the rug out from under viewers just as we think we've got things worked out gives the movie a refreshing sense of unpredictability.
But sadly, The Big Year's wide-reaching appeal may also be its Achilles' heel. While director David Frankel works diligently to give the film a dynamic visual style and a satisfying sense of energy, the restrained humor and dialed-back drama make the movie more pleasant than genuinely compelling. Still, if you happen to find yourself stuck in the house during a stormy afternoon, the gorgeous vistas and affable comedy of The Big Year may be the perfect recipe to lift your spirits.