There’s something about birdwatching that doesn’t scream ‘cinema’. Where The Big Year looks like it might succeed is in its Planes, Trains & Automobiles-style dash around the US , as birders compete to spot rare species.
This adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book even casts Planes alumni Steve Martin, adds Jack Black in place of John Candy and throws in Owen Wilson for good measure. If director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) had run with that idea and taken flight, things could have been so different.
What he hatches instead is a dramedy – with the emphasis on the drama. Laughs are few and far between, with one of the most memorable attempts making fun of a character who already seems like a victim. It doesn’t help that the script moves from plot point A to plot point B as straight as the crow flies, never circling away to surprise or challenge.
The characterisation is similarly gentle, none of the players getting the chance to stretch their wings. Owen Wilson is Bosnick, the best birder in the world and the man to beat. Yet he’s not evil, just routinely callous and ruthless, and you never really feel the obsession that’s driving him or his competitors.
The end result is a sort of unromantic comedy, as obsessed husbands spend time away from their wives and Jack Black strikes out with Rashida Jones (The Social Network). The final flip of the bird? A moral that’s spelled out so blatantly at the end of the film it’s a mystery why one of the kids from South Park didn’t get to step forward first and say, “You know, I’ve learned something today...”