A thrice-married roofing contractor from New Jersey with a fondness for garishly printed fedoras, Kenny Bostick has a singular mission in life: he wants to spot more North American mating birds in a single year than anyone in history. As played by Owen Wilson in David Frankel’s new comedy The Big Year, Kenny is a familiar variation on a type the actor perfected in Meet the Parents (2000) and You, Me and Dupree (2006)—the smooth-talking blowhard who just keeps smiling, even as everyone around him wants to crack his teeth. Less expected, though, is the pathos that the Dallas-born Wilson brings to the part—a distracted, knotted-up restlessness that isn’t always likable but is never less than honest. Kenny is the kind of guy who, when forced to choose between meeting his wife (Rosamund Pike) at a fertility clinic and flying to Buffalo to spot a rare owl, barely pauses before chasing after the bird. “This is what I’m great at. This is what I’ll be remembered for,” he tells his wife, in a voice well-rehearsed in the art of self-delusion. He sounds panic-stricken when he adds, “No one remembers who comes in second.”

Keep your expectations in check: The Big Year, which opened last month and features Steve Martin and Jack Black as the equally obsessive men against whom Kenny must compete for the birding world record, doesn’t add up to much. The movie skitters and flutters from character to character and setting to setting, never quite finding a rhythm or provoking more than a few chuckles. But coming on the heels of Wilson’s starring role in Woody Allen’s summer hit Midnight in Paris, this new movie may one day be looked back on as a signpost. After years of being regarded as a detached, indifferent performer—a reputation the actor did nothing to disprove with dreadful movies like Shanghai Noon (2000), I Spy (2002), and Starsky & Hutch (2004)—Wilson, who will turn 43 this month, has been reborn. The man we see on-screen these days appears bruised and disoriented, earnestly trying to reignite a spark that got extinguished somewhere along the way; in many respects, he perfectly represents an entire American generation that’s entering middle age and is incapable of snapping itself out of a recessionary funk. Even in lesser roles over the past twelve months—as a major league baseball lothario in James L. Brooks’s rambling dramedy How Do You Know or the melancholy voice of Lightning McQueen in the animated Cars 2—the actor manages to be tender without being soft, vulnerable without being a wuss. The real big year? The one Owen Wilson is having.

You could see the first glimmers of this older, wiser Wilson in the otherwise insufferable The Darjeeling Limited (2007), in which he played one of three brothers searching for their long-lost mother. With his faraway gaze and sweetly halting line readings, he almost succeeded in lending actual feeling to director Wes Anderson’s hopelessly stylized vision. But Wilson really seemed to find himself in the Frankel-directed Marley & Me (2008), the first movie he filmed after his apparent suicide attempt in 2007, in which he took on the role of a discontented newspaper reporter who finds his place in the world with the help of an unruly Labrador. It’s a restrained and unshowy performance, laconic almost to a fault; Wilson was more than willing to let the canine steal the show. But in the first half of the film, the actor embodied the classic thirtysomething’s dilemma, that startling moment when you look around and wonder, Is this all there is to life? And in the final moments, as an aged and ailing Marley lies on a veterinarian’s table, Wilson captured something even more complicated and moving: the heartbreak and profound gratefulness with which we bid farewell to the pets who have changed our lives.

If The Darjeeling Limited and Marley & Me suggested promise—might this endearing goofball have real chops?—then Midnight in Paris delivered on it, in ways we never could have anticipated. Wilson played Gil, a frustrated writer who is visiting Paris and on the cusp of marrying a woman (Rachel McAdams) who clearly doesn’t believe in his talent. It was immediately clear that the actor had actually found a part that allowed him to put his ironic, slacker detachment to dramatic use; indeed, Gil is so disconnected from the people around him, so crippled by nostalgia and yearning, that he ends up in a time-travel wormhole that takes him back to the twenties. As his eyes alighted on Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Wilson captured the rapture of an exile who has finally stumbled onto his tribe. What was most remarkable about the performance, though, was the way that Wilson’s sensibility meshed so perfectly with his director’s. In Midnight in Paris, Gil is the Woody Allen stand-in, the nervous, nattering character who has been played in other films by the likes of John Cusack (Bullets Over Broadway), Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity), and Will Ferrell (Melinda and Melinda). Yet instead of awkwardly mimicking Allen, as those other actors did, Wilson spoke Allen’s words in his own nasally drawl, cutting through the neuroses and tapping into the bittersweet yearning at their core. His character is a guy whose reality never seems to measure up to his romantic ideals—an artist whose outsized ambitions torture as much as inspire him—and Wilson did full justice to this poignant, universal predicament.

We can only guess how much of Wilson’s off-screen turmoil is now brought to bear on his on-screen work; he has carefully avoided the press in recent years and has never publicly discussed the reported suicide attempt (see “Art Imitating Life?”). We should also be careful not to pretend that he’s suddenly incapable of making poor choices: Wilson looked half-asleep in the Farrelly brothers’ Hall Pass (2011), a dismal comedy, co-starring Jason Sudeikis, about a pair of husbands whose wives give them a week off from marriage. But there’s no mistaking that, at long last, there’s a real human being up there on the screen, fragile and haunted and bravely exposed. Perhaps the most resonant moment in The Big Year comes very late in the film, when Kenny finds himself sitting alone on Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota, where he’s come to seek out yet another rare species. It’s supposed to be funny—a joke about the disjunction between the pragmatism of these hardworking immigrants and the lunatic folly of this privileged, birdbrained American—but you glimpse the loneliness etched into the actor’s face, and the laughter gets caught in your throat. This is the art of an actor built to last: even in a misfire like The Big Year, Owen Wilson leaves us eager to see what he does next.

Art Imitating Life? No comment

It’s the biggest mystery in Celebrity Rehab Nation: How has Owen Wilson managed to avoid the usual paparazzi scrutiny of one’s personal life following a high-profile breakdown? Even the birth of his first child earlier this year, and then his subsequent breakup with the child’s mother, Jade Duell, barely registered in the tabloids. On this score, Wilson deserves credit for closely guarding his image and forcing us to focus on the work: since 2007, he has given only a handful of carefully controlled interviews for each new movie. (As Chris Lee noted earlier this year in the Daily Beast, the media have also been oddly complicit, rarely prodding Wilson on the subject.) Whether the actor will maintain his silence remains to be seen—stars have a tendency to overshare once they need to promote a hard-to-market movie—but for now we should all take heed: Wilson reminds us that “famous” need not be synonymous with “overexposed.”