Trainspotting, to its credit, wasn’t actually a movie about the inherently non-cinematic British pastime of spotting trains. But The Big Year, very loosely adapted from a nonfiction account, asks us to get invested in bird-watching—specifically, in an annual contest (with no prize apart from bragging rights) to see who can spot the most different avian species in one calendar year. The rivals: a stuffy business tycoon (Steve Martin) who needs to learn what’s truly important in life (family); a status-obsessed cad (Owen Wilson) who needs to learn what’s truly important in life (family); and a deeply depressed layabout (Jack Black) who needs to learn what’s truly important in life (getting laid—just kidding! It actually turns out to be family as well).
Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), who at least knows how to keep things moving briskly, The Big Year straddles an unrewarding line between dopey slapstick comedy and maudlin male bonding. Only Wilson, as the least sympathetic of the trio, manages to eke out occasional laughs, and even those are predicated to a surprising degree on the fact that everyone, including his wife (Rosamund Pike), refers to him only by his last name, Bostick. (“K” sounds are funny.) Meanwhile, no amount of shameless mugging or confessional speeches can ultimately distract from the reality that you’re watching three guys spend a small fortune crossing the globe in order to repeatedly peer through binoculars, just so they can log bird names. Given the state of the world at the moment, surely there’s a bigger year to be had.