For the Birds

Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson's fowl new movie

“Only Americans can turn birding into a competition,” remarks a British birdwatcher in the uncommonly gentle comedy The Big Year, about the compulsive quest of three men to win the North American Big Year, a contest to spot the most bird species in one year.

Brad (Jack Black), a software engineer who can recognize any bird by its song, teams up with Stu (Steve Martin), a wealthy CEO and fellow obsessive, to topple the reigning champ, the cocky, underhanded Kenny Bostwick (Owen Wilson) from his perch. The movie follows the contenders as they travel the continent, spending thousands of dollars and enduring storms, mosquitoes, rats, and risky helicopter flights to catch glimpses of the Pink-footed goose, the Crested Myna, and other rare species in pursuit of their goal.

The humor is a bit too larkish, but the story gracefully weaves the men’s migrations with their personal lives: Brad’s rapprochement with his initially disapproving father, Stu gathering the courage to finally retire, and Kenny's neglect of his pretty wife to trail the Snowy Owl and defend his title. --Pamela Zoslov