Who knew that the hobby (sport?) of competitive birding was so competitive? It turns out that hundreds of people annually take to the scenic vistas of North America, armed with binoculars and a camera, to spot as many different species of birds as they can in a 12-month period. It’s cutthroat and grueling adventure that attracts hundreds of people.

In The Big Year, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black play three of these birders (don’t call them bird-watchers), who embark on an adventure that tests their wallets, their home life, and their careers.

You would think with this cast, The Big Year would be a laugh-a-minute romp full of slapstick and silliness– but it’s not. Instead, it’s a high-minded bit of fun with a couple splashes of drama mixed in… a journey of discovery for these three men, each of whom had to make a significant life choice to enter the competition.

Black is a marginally-employed schlub who sees The Big Year as a chance to give his life some direction. Armed with his mom’s (Dianne Wiest) credit card, he sets out to make a name for himself. Wilson is Kenny Bostick, the reigning king of the birding world and current Big Year record-holder, but back at home his baby-hungry wife (Rosamund Pike) is beginning to lose patience. And Martin is a just-retiring corporate bigshot who needs a break from skyscrapers and conference rooms.

All three men decide to throw caution (and, arguably, common sense) to the wind for a year-long trek that takes them from the Florida Keys to the far reaches of Alaska– all in the name of spotting birds… and lots of them.

Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and based on the (non-fiction) book by Mark Obmascik, The Big Year tells a simple story. It’s not an outright comedy, but it’s not exactly a drama either. More than anything, it’s a study of three men and the fulfillment of their life’s quest; the movie is full of quiet moments of revelation (along with some truly sweeping panoramas).

The Big Year is rated PG, but it’s by no means a family film; children will be bored out of their skulls. Adults, though, who are looking for a nice, gentle break from the typical profanity-laced fare will be pleasantly surprised. When ‘crap’ is the most off-color word you hear, you know you’ve tripped on a rare bird indeed.

3.5/5 stars