"Who doesn't love birds?" says Jack Black in the opening moments of this movie. Well, me, for starters.
Sure, birds are pretty, but they're also tiny, terrifying dinosaurs that carry illness, Contagion waiting to poop on your car. Worse, I had a college roommate who owned a bird. It smelled terrible and made lots of noise. I never got over being unhappy about that. So there. With the exception of Winged Migration and Sam the Eagle from the Muppets, I'm not a fan.
But I am a fan of obsession, no matter what form it takes. I'm also reluctant to dismiss any mainstream film that dares to take on unusual subjects. So I was ready to be introduced to this story's world of bird-watching enthusiasts (they call themselves "birders"), their habits, their rituals, their in-fighting, their rivalries. I wanted the specifics of a "Big Year," where birders travel for twelve months pursuing as many birds as they can track down and observe. What makes a person do this? Who bankrolls it? Who in their right mind would get into a tiny prop-plane and fly through an Alaskan snowstorm just to look at a bird? And most importantly, can we trust the director of Marley & Me or Steve Martin to really get under the skin of anything or anyone? And while you're pondering that question, factor in that Martin is the guy whose recent idea of worthy vehicles for his comic talents include The Pink Panther and The Pink Panther 2, films that suggest he'd much rather be off playing bluegrass music or collecting expensive art.
Anyway, the answer to that last one is "no." You can't.
The problem here isn't that the movie is so rotten. It's not. The story of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as three men from different walks of live who each embark on an extended bird-binocularing quest is friendly and kind, contented and calm. I'd take my mother to this and she'd think it was "cute." But obsessive people aren't cute. They're obsessive. They obsess. They talk too much about their obsession. They make people feel weird. You should be fascinated by them and maybe a little standoffish around them at the same time. And if an equally obsessive director like Werner Herzog or Errol Morris made this movie, you can bet that's exactly how you'd feel by the time it was over.
Instead, the finished product aims for heartwarmth and quirky character touches like Owen Wilson's ugly hat. And Steve Martin's ugly hat. And Rashida Jones's ugly hat. Instead of character traits fleshed out in a script, somebody just told Wardrobe to go for it. You never learn what makes anyone tick, just that they all have terrible taste in headgear.
And I take it back. I like birds when they're attacking everyone in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And while these characters were counting birds, I was counting the number of people on screen I wished would fall victim to that kind of winged assault.