The Big Year

“The Big Year” is a comedy about the competitive world of birdwatching. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s a lot better than you’d expect a comedy about the competitive world of birdwatching to be. It’s cheerful, unassuming, and congenial, rather than frenetic and wacky. Jack Black is in it, and he only falls down twice!

Based on Mark Obmascik’s book, which in turn was based on a true story, “The Big Year” fills us in on the annual friendly competition among birdwatchers to see who can spot the greatest number of different bird species in the wild in North America in one calendar year. Like birdwatching itself, the contest is relaxed and informal, and relies largely on the honor system. There is no prize. Still, you can see how certain personality types would take it very, very seriously and try very, very hard to win.

Jack Black does not play one of these types. His character, a cubicle-dwelling schlub named Brad Harris, is an amateur birder (they prefer that term over “birdwatcher,” thank you very much) who knows all the species and their calls. He doesn’t have the resources to spend the year traveling around looking for birds, so his Big Year is for fun, not necessarily with an eye toward winning.

Then there is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a wealthy, aging CEO who has always dreamed of doing a Big Year, and who would very much like to win. He particularly wants to break the record set a few years ago by one Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a mouthy New Jersey contractor who’s as close to a swaggering rock star as can be found in this world of polite gentlemen and ladies. Kenny’s obsession with birding — and with winning — has motivated him to spend this year defending his record, to the annoyance of his wife (Rosamund Pike).

Boy, it really sounds like it’s going to be a “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” kind of zany, slapstick comedy, doesn’t it? That’s the impression I get from reading that plot description, and I’ve actually seen the movie. But no, it’s quite gentle and unstrained, directed by David Frankel (“Marley & Me,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) as the sort of pleasant diversion you enjoy stumbling upon while channel surfing on a lazy weekend afternoon.

Notice I do not say you enjoy stumbling upon it after paying $10 for a movie ticket. Good-natured and amiable though it is, it’s not particularly funny, nor are its sunny elements enough to justify dragging yourself out of the house to see it. Howard Franklin’s screenplay is bafflingly messy, with characters and subplots coming and going all willy-nilly: a blogger journalist (Jim Parsons) who covers the world of birding has maybe a minute of screen time; a female birder (Rashida Jones) with whom Brad develops a friendship disappears for most of the film. Everyone learns the lesson you’d expect him to learn, in the way you’d expect.

Nor can we overlook the fact that a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson ought to be about a thousand times funnier than this. I was pleased enough by the small chuckles I got, but I always had the nagging feeling that a tremendous opportunity had been wasted. That’s to say nothing of the unusually large number of recognizable, likable actors in tiny supporting roles: Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale as Stu’s business associates, JoBeth Williams as his wife, Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy as Brad’s parents, Anthony Anderson as his boss … Anjelica Huston piloting a sight-seeing boat, John Cleese narrating the history of the Big Year … Tim Blake Nelson, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen … What is going on here? How did all these people wander into the same movie? And why isn’t that movie better?

Finally, because this is a movie about birds, I would like to mention that birds have a single orifice through which they pee, poop, and reproduce, and it’s called a cloaca. Cloaca cloaca cloaca cloaca cloaca.

C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; PG, a little mild profanity.)