Over the last several years, there have been a rash of documentaries with the same structure: People who are really into a particular niche interest all compete to win the big prize in their field. Everything from "Mad Hot Ballroom" to "King of Kong" to "Air Guitar Nation" to "Spellbound" have followed this template, allowing the audience to meet the participants while developing rooting interests (or boo-hiss villains) along the way.
"Marley & Me" director David Frankel's "The Big Year" is a feature film version of those kinds of documentaries, looking at the world of birders -- specifically three very different guys competing to spot the most birds in a calendar year. Like "Marley & Me," it's a bit sappy but also has some genuine moments of real heart. I just wish it wasn't quite so bland. It's the sort of film your mother might call "a nice movie," which should tell you everything you need to know.
"The Big Year" is based on Mark Obmascik's nonfiction book about an actual competition known as the Big Year: Hardcore bird enthusiasts travel the country keeping track of how many birds they see, with the winner becoming the envy of his or her peers. In the movie, Frankel focuses on three guys going about their Big Year for their own specific reasons. Stu (Steve Martin) is about to retire from the lucrative company he founded, and while the idea of letting go of his professional life scares him, he's excited to finally have the time to focus on birding. Brad (Jack Black) is obsessed with birding to the detriment of his personal life: He lives with his parents and is recently divorced. As for Bostick (Owen Wilson), he's the king of the birding world, the current Big Year record-holder who hasn't let a string of failed marriages stop him from trying to top himself again this year, even though his current wife (Rosamund Pike) really would like to have a baby.
Like in the typical competition documentary, "The Big Year" splits its time between its big-race storyline and the guys' personal lives. When you think about it, Frankel is nicely suited to handling this material: "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Marley & Me," though very different movies in some ways, are both about people consumed with a passion for something, be it fashion or a loyal pet. So "The Big Year" has a lot of sympathy for its characters' all-consuming hobby, even if the people in the men's lives don't always.
What's probably most noteworthy about "The Big Year," though, is how birding becomes a metaphor for all the races men put themselves through to prove their dominance over other men. Unfortunately, that translates into a "stop and smell the roses" moral that's handled rather obviously. Still, as played out by Martin, Black and Wilson, at least it's presented in a likeable package. You can't say any of these guys give a great performance -- the movie's too low-key for anything like that -- but they fit into their tailor-made roles comfortably and go about their business.
If I don't sound particularly impassioned one way or the other about "The Big Year," that's part of the movie's problem, which is ironic since it's about people who let their passions dictate their lives. Where "Marley & Me" was an adorable-dog movie that disguised a thoughtful, moving commentary on mortality and commitment, "The Big Year" is squishy and pleasant but not quite as touching as it would like to be. Plus, the competition component keeps getting in the way. I really didn't care who won, and the movie doesn't either since that's one of the lessons it wants to impart. So you're left with three nice guys. Not compelling or intriguing or memorable -- just nice.