The soundtrack jukebox keeps cranking unceasingly in The Big Year; along with the swooping helicopter shots over Yukon tundra and assorted Canadian waterways, catalogue-ready interior sets, and the affirmation of romantic and familial ties lacking any zest or surprises, the uptempo tunes (even 30 seconds of “Viva La Vida”) are part of the package that now signifies “star-laden comedy” in the multiplex. Call it an Olive Garden farce for audiences who don’t hunger for authentically cinematic wit because it’s almost never on the menu. Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson are cast as a trio of obsessed birdwatchers, and display scarcely a hint of the sharp, off-kilter instincts that once animated their movies with giddy spirit. (When Martin’s newly retired business mogul celebrates a birding coup with Black’s jovial imp by breaking into his wild-and-crazy jive from his standup heyday, it’s cringeworthy—an unwelcome reminder that nobody’s having any lowbrow fun here.)
Each crisscrossing North America for 12 months in their titular effort to log the most sighted species (all on an unbroken honor system), the lead trio contend predictably with storms, unsound transport planes, rustic quarters on a remote Aleutian isle, and each other, before genial grandpa Martin and slacking divorcee Black team up in an attempt to dethrone defending champion Wilson, a ruthless tactician whose self-image as “the Mozart” of birding is fraying his marriage to a motherhood-ready martyr (Rosamund Pike). Along with a purely decorative Rashida Jones as Black’s raven-calling dream girl, Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy punch the clock as his supportive mom and testy cardiac-patient dad, and a game Anjelica Huston (in flannel and pigtails) barks briefly as a butch lake-cruise pilot. All deserve better.
Director David Frankel can’t lend the inflated sitcom dilemmas of the characters any life, and most mysteriously screenwriter Howard Franklin, whose work in the ‘90s frequently had appealing quirk and flavor, gets the dubious credit for adapting a 1998 nonfiction book about these hobbyists’ pursuit of pink-footed geese and Northern Shovelers. Maybe 13 years of “development” was just long enough for all traces of eccentricity and charm to be drained from The Big Year; the fleeting sight of supporting stalwarts Tim Blake Nelson and Anthony Anderson in bit roles as birders makes one wonder how much warmth and genuine human comedy could have been drawn from the same milieu in a film that wasn’t sunk by the A-list aesthetics of test-marketed tapioca.