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To Some, A Mighty Passion

For months, the birdosphere has been anticipating “The Big Year,” the first movie reputed to take serious birding seriously ­— and probably the first to take it on at all since Alfred Hitchcock’s white-haired “ornithologist” twitted about the intelligence of Corvus brachyrynchos (the American crow) in “The Birds.” So now that “The Big Year” has alighted in theaters, does it live up to the hopes and dreams of birders … like yours truly? Sorry, friends, “The Big Year” lays a pretty big egg. For a movie about the love of crisscrossing the continent in pursuit of the greatest number of species of birds to see in a year, including the unusual and exotic, it feels about as exciting as watching a squirrel at a bird feeder. Now here’s what I like about the movie. For the most part, it does resist the temptation to ridicule competitive birding, which can be thought of as a rarified subset of birding. In “The Big Year,” based on a true account, three men — Brad Harris (Jack Black), Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) — race to break Bostick’s record 734 North American species. I could just hear all my birding compadres cheering when corporate guru Preissler stares down another executive who dismisses his “bird watching” and retorts, “It’s not bird watching. It’s called birding.” Director Davixd Frankel (“Marley & Me,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) nicely conveys the feelings of joy and discovery that drive many of us to make birding a passion and a handful to turn a hobby into a mania. He must have had a raft of birding experts backing him up. Most of the movie is very faithful and ornithologically correct. The best part is an extended episode of birding on Attu, the outermost island of the Aleutians. It’s a wonderful tour for those of us who have never been there, and there’s some brisk fun to go with it. Owen Wilson, as droll as ever playing, well, Owen Wilson, is loose and athletic, making him a plausible candidate for “the world’s greatest birder,” as Bostick is billed. Black comes through with some nice touches. As the straight man, however, Martin never gets off the ground. As for the rest, it’s all bad news. Howard Franklin’s screenplay, from Mark Obmascik’s book, is riddled with one tired cliché after another. You can practically see the machinery turning as the movie’s creators try to figure out how to juice up a story that may not draw the average moviegoer. Insert family dilemma here and a guy trying to get the cute girl there; get plenty of shots of an adorable baby; and if all else fails, throw in a few pratfalls for Black. The birds look great in many adoring montages, but the characters in “The Big Year” never make it off the two-dimensional storyboard. And other than the elusive pink-footed goose, the rarest sightings consist of numerous “where-have-they-been” actors in one-dimensional roles. Brian Dennehy, JoBeth Williams, Kevin Pollak, Anjelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, and even “Pride and Prejudice’s” wholesomely attractive Rosamund Pike head up the parade of noteworthy and utterly wasted talent. The problem with “The Big Year,” paradoxically, boils down to taking its subject too seriously. Considering the comedic firepower on hand, the result is shockingly mirthless. “The Big Year” is headed straight to DVD, but when it gets there I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on more than a few birders’ shelves. “The Big Year” is rated PG for language and some sensuality.

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