Year One (2009) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and violence
Running time: 97 min.
Cast: Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Olivia Wilde, June Diane Raphael, Xander Berkeley, Juno Temple, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Gia Carides, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Horatio Sanz, David Pasquesi, Harold Ramis, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Rick Overton
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
It's not easy to imagine Harold Ramis, the writer-director of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, turning in a film this bad. I suppose one could see the diminishing returns in his last two films, The Ice Harvest and Analyze That, but Year One ranks as a film that no one with 30 years in the industry should ever be responsible for. Perhaps Ramis, who conceived of this Biblical spoof, should have taken lessons from other misfires like Wholly Moses and History of the World Part I prior to setting out on this fool's venture. It's not even true to its own premise, a hodgepodge of historical events that mashes together the Paleolithic era and Old Testament events of various centuries, in a mostly ad-libbed fiasco.
The film starts with this mix of cavemen in the Garden of Eden (I think), whereby Zed (Black, Kung Fu Panda) eats of the Forbidden Fruit and is banished from his village, along with his tagalong partner, Oh (Cera, Juno). Having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Zed fancies that he is a "Chosen One" to do great things in the world he ventures out on, which includes running into Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and Sodom and Gomorrah, the latter of which they become enslaved in and try to bring about a rebellion of sorts (mostly saving their own hides) from within.
Ramis's films have had their share of sexual innuendo and potty humor, but those were used sparingly, and usually to get big laughs (the Baby Ruth pool scene in Caddyshack is a prime example). Year One suffers from overkill; if you removed all penis and potty jokes from it, you'd erase the about 80% of the film's gags. For such a ribald farce, when there are laughs, they are mild, and hardly the knee-slappers you'd expect from a game cast of comedic actors. The characters of Zed and Oh are walking anachronisms, with modern sensibilities and lingo in their reactions to the barbaric B.C. world around them.
I'm not sure if I'm more surprised that it took three credited screenwriters to come up with a script this inept than I am that Ramis actually shot film with a script at all. The production feels like a high-budget skit comedy, dressing up the actors and telling them to riff on one central Biblical theme or scenario and hope they stumble upon enough footage worth keeping. Like many kitchen-sink comedies that end with outtakes in the closing credits, you can tell by the fact that the scenes that didn't make the cut are similar to scenes that did, except with different dialogue and mannerisms, which further cements the notion that any script these actors read from was merely a blueprint.
The movie isn't a complete travesty, as there are some spirited performances within, including the always energetic Jack Black and a good small role for an intentionally repulsive and androgynous Oliver Platt (Frost/Nixon). Black and Cera do perform well together in a sort of Laurel and Hardy way, where one complements the other in their approaches to the humor without stepping over each other's punch lines. Alas, if the punch lines were a bit less sophomoric, we'd have a film worthy of its lively and capable cast.
What the movie really lacks, in addition to genuine wit, is a focus in its story from which to play its jokes off of. Ostensibly, the film starts with Zed's quest for meaning, but this is only dealt with in spots, and soon the production devolves into a childishly presented fight to stay alive. The religious backdrop also doesn't bring forth much in terms of commentary or satire on ancient religions, save to make the characters in the early Old Testament look like buffoons.
Perhaps fans of the leads won't mind seeing them do their usual shtick within the course of a different setting than we're accustomed to seeing, there isn't much here to justify the time and money spent for anyone else. Year One is a solid plot and about a dozen good non-scatological jokes away from being a passable good time. Sometimes even good comedians aren't enough of an excuse to set your high-concept film on autopilot.
©2010 Vince Leo