Three cuckoos in search of themselves

“Who doesn’t love birds?” Jack Black says via narrative intro to The Big Year, a comedy about competitive birding and male bonding. The assertion depends on where you stand, or maybe roost.

Owen Wilson

Owen Wilson

The Big Year

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Rated: PG

“Who doesn’t love birds?” Jack Black says via narrative intro to The Big Year, a comedy about competitive birding and male bonding.

The assertion depends on where you stand, or maybe roost.

Birds are great when viewed in flight or singing happily in a garden. They’re not so great when fouling a windshield or gobbling freshly planted seed.

The situation is the same with Black and his fellow birdbrains Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. They’re amusing when their worst excesses are kept in check. They’re not so hilarious when self-control or the script fails them.

Happily, The Big Year offers a chance to agree with Black twice over. All of these featherheads — both the avian and human kind — are lovable.

Even better, they’re funny, in a comedy that doesn’t have to swoop to conquer.

Black is Brad Harris, a chronically broke computer technician, who has a mania for birding (not “birdwatching,” if you please).

So do Martin’s Stu Preissler and Wilson’s Kenny Bostick. Preissler is the CEO of a company he’s too important to retire from, much as he longs to.

Bostick is a renovator whose real claim to fame is as the world’s foremost birder. He holds the record of 732 viewings in a single year in North America, known as a big year in birding circles.

A big year is only possible when winds and fate drive enough birds of differing varieties before the eager binoculars of birders. One such year has arrived.

Bostick aims to maintain or better his record. Harris and Preissler intend to beat it. Over the next 12 months, they’ll risk life and limb, max out credit cards and try the patience of spouses and other relations as they criss-cross the continent in hot pursuit of their winged prey.

As a bemused Englishman observes in the film: “Only Americans can turn birding into a competition.”

Maybe, but The Big Year is based at least in part on fact. Howard Franklin bases his screenplay on the book of the same name by Mark Obmascik, which was based on a real 1998 contest by three men and which is subtitled A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.

“Obsession” is the operative word, and it’s the common link that will help many people understand the human loons of The Big Year. Many people have obsessions, whether they’re running marathons (not jogging) or collecting Star Wars memorabilia.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) wisely doesn’t mock birders. He shows the humanity inherent in their obsession.

He also gets understated performances out of Black, Martin and Wilson that thankfully stray from their all-too-familiar respective poses as freak, doofus and clown.

Their characters aren’t just searching for birds, they’re searching for themselves. They may not like what they find: one man’s epiphany could be another’s loss.

As they chase for such avian delights as pintailed snipes and olive-beaked pipits, the three men cross paths with a Who’s Who of supporting stars: Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Rosamund Pike, JoBeth Williams, Tim Blake Nelson, Kevin Pollak and John Cleese (as additional narrator).

Some of the talent seems wasted, glimpsed as briefly as many of the birds hiding amidst the film’s splendid scenery.

The Big Year frequently soars nonetheless. It’s ultimately about how the birds watch us, wondering who the real cuckoos are.

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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