By Rick Kisonak | October 20, 2011

You know something’s up when a studio spends millions of dollars on a picture’s ads and trailers all the while desperately trying to keep you from finding out what it’s about. In this case, Fox plays up the presence of popular comic actors Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson but plays down-way, way down-the nature of the hijinks in which they’re being paid to engage.

The studio should have had more faith in the material and its target audience because The Big Year, though hardly destined for box office domination, is an eccentric and frequently charming trifle more entertaining by far than many of the movies its prolific stars have made.

The film’s shameful secret? It’s about birding. More specifically, it deals with the real life annual contest referred to in the title in which hobbyists compete for the honor of having sighted the largest number of species within the geographical limits of North America over the course of a single twelve month period. There is no prize money at stake. What’s at stake, we come to find, are jobs, bank accounts and marriages.

Martin plays Stu Preissler, a business tycoon who’s ready for a different sort of life but constantly is pulled back in by underlings (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) who require his guidance as they negotiate a sensitive merger.

Black-are you sitting?-snaps a long losing streak with his dialed down performance as nuclear power plant engineer Brad Harris, whose wife has left him due to his ornithological obsession. He’s moved back in with his parents to regroup. Dad is played by Brian Dennehy so you can imagine his reaction to the news that the 36 year old plans to run off to spot birds for a year armed only with a pair of binoculars and a pocketful of their credit cards.

Wilson costars as the Babe Ruth of The Big Year. He’s Ken Bostick, whose record total of 732 has made him both a legend and a target. He’s married to a beauty played by Rosamund Pike. All she wants in the world is for him to stay home and make a baby. He, on the other hand, feels drawn to the great outdoors in order to protect his crown. In one scene, he literally leaves Pike in mid-make out session after receiving news of a rare bird’s location. Which seemed closer to fantasy or science fiction than comedy to me. But I digress.

The movie is based on Mark Obmascik’s 2004 nonfiction book of the same name and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada). The script by Howard Franklin is perhaps its most winning asset. He steers clear of the predictable (bird poop gags, portraying the hobbyists as geeks), sets a tone of convivial rivalry, tosses in the occasional twist and keeps the funnier-than-average dialogue flying.

In addition to some spectacular nature cinematography and a parade of exotic winged creatures, the film offers subtle insights. For example, Stu, Brad, Bostick and their fellow plummage-seeking pilgrims at first come off as compulsives-borderline fanatics. One can easily see them on Birders, an exploitative reality show along the lines of Hoarders.

As we get to know them though, it becomes clear they’re simply following their outsider bliss. They’re answering the same sort of inner call which mysteriously summons their feathered friends to migrate across vast distances each year.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help contemplating what a director such as Wes Anderson might have created out of the same material. Frankel has not quite realized its full oddball potential. Nonetheless, The Big Year is indisputably a far more rewarding 90 minutes than most are likely to suspect; and that includes most of the folks employed in the promotional division at Fox.

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