In some alternate universe, a much better version of The Big Year exists, one that embraces the essential, insular weirdness and romantic fanaticism of the birding community it chronicles. But in this reality, we're stuck with David Frankel's wan dramedy.
Based loosely on Mark Obmascik's 2004 nonfiction book of the same name, The Big Year chronicles three men's attempts at the so-called Big Year, an informal but long-running contest to clock the most birds sighted in North America over the course of 365 days. Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, an obsessive birder and the current record holder. He's challenged by two first-timers: Martin's Stu Preissler, a newly retired corporate CEO, and Black's Brad Harris, a schlubby sad sack looking to turn his bad year into a big year. (Black also narrates, frequently filling in the audience on such dramatic developments as Stu's sudden fixation on his mortality, which the filmmakers bizarrely choose not to dramatize.)
There's such potential in the premise: in the admirably old-fashioned ideal of immersion in the natural world, in the three men's self-appointment to a modern-day hero's quest, and in the idiosyncrasies and inner demons powering them along their journeys. (Brad tends to prematurely quit things before he can fail, while Kenny's obsessive focus on birding has already undone two marriages). But Frankel and scripter Howard Franklin hardly poke a stick at any of those ideas, opting instead to take universal conditions – Brad's self-defeat, say, or Kenny's myopia – and render them as generically as possible. But The Big Year's biggest disappointment is its inadequacy in elucidating the passion of the birder. What ardency, and what an exceptional, impenetrable world they move in. I for one wanted a better look at it.