The Big Year takes birding to new heights

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      Starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. Rated G.

      The Big Year takes birding to new heights, conceptually speaking, by making the ornithological hobby stand in for all the quiet passions in life.

      The film’s characters are very loosely based on those found in Mark Obmascik’s nonfiction book of the same name. Owen Wilson plays the charmingly obnoxious, sometimes downright devious Kenny Bostick, a successful contractor now blowing most of his dough—and his marriage to someone (Rosamund Pike) sick of waiting at home—on defending his previous Big Year: a record of 732 sightings of different bird species. The spotters coming up behind him in the current year are Steve Martin’s Stu, a corporate honcho attempting to retire with the support of his loving wife (JoBeth Williams), and Jack Black’s Brad, a computer techie who must borrow trekking money from his softhearted mom (Dianne Wiest), much to the disapproval of his baffled dad (Brian Dennehy).

      Those family dynamics remain in the background, as most scenes are devoted to global gadding about, with B.C. and the Yukon standing in for most northern and desert climes as the competition heats up. Along the way, Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Cleese also alight in small supporting roles, and Rashida Jones has a sweet turn as Brad’s potential love dove.

      The easygoing, carefully shot film reunites Wilson with David Frankel, who also directed Marley and Me and The Devil Wears Prada. The Big Year shares with those a gently humanistic intelligence that is occasionally marred by dumbing-down moments.

      There is much unnecessary narration, the tale spends too little time conveying the charisma of its ostensible subjects (the birds, that is), and the chubby Black takes at least two pratfalls too many. Still, there’s an unusually hip soundtrack, featuring songs by Eels, Jeremy Fisher, and others. Plus, it’s refreshing to find a road movie in which the dirtiest word uttered most often is “Bostick!”

      Watch the trailer for The Big Year.