A film review by Craig J. Koban

YEAR ONE jj
½ 

2009, PG-13, 96 mins.

 

Zed: Jack Black / Oh: Michael Cera / High Priest: Oliver Platt / Cain: David Cross / Isaac: Christopher Mintz-Plasse / Abraham: Hank Azaria

Directed by Harold Ramis / Written by Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg.

Writer/director Harold Ramis certainly does not need to apologize for his comedic film resume.  The former Second City alumni has carved out a special niche for himself for making some of the most clever and uproarious screen comedies of the last quarter of a century.  He was behind the screenplays for such films as NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS, GHOSTBUSTERS and STRIPES and as a director he helmed critical and audience lauded efforts like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (still the finest of the lot), CADYSHACK, ANALYZE THIS (still Robert De Niro’s funniest screen performance) and GROUNDHOG DAY (which effectively married humor with sentiment without it ringing falsely).  Without a doubt, his street cred as a purveyor of on-screen hilarity needs very little embellishment on my part. 

It’s crucial, however, to remind both myself and readers of his talent, because his new Biblical themed, would-be laughfest, YEAR ONE, certainly does not hold a candle to the best of the Ramis-cannon.  On a positive, it certainly looks like he was taking on a fairly ambitious premise here: it chronicles two Paleolithic tribal village men, apparently from around 20,000 years ago, and how they abruptly take a detour from their hunter/gatherer lifestyles into some of the most memorable Bible yarns.  Consider YEAR ONE a sort of Cliff Notes version of the Book of Genesis: We get the forbidden fruit and the Garden of Eden; Cain, Abel, Abraham and Isaac are here; and, to top it all off, the wandering cavemen culminate their long and somewhat anachronistic journey to the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.  I guess that when the film was pitched it was probably milked as 10,000 BC meets LIFE OF BRIAN meets HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I. 

I can certainly appreciate Ramis’ sensibilities and choices here:  Satirizing the Bible is usually a thankless cause that would get just about any filmmaker ridiculed, but the acerbic jabs in YEAR ONE are definitely not as pronounced and scathing as in the works of MONTY PYTHON (which certainly was a self-admitted influence on the film by Ramis himself).  There are certainly some sly gags here and some of the individual comic performances hit just the right uproarious notes, but one of the real dilemmas of YEAR ONE is that its religious satire is rather flaccid: instead of being intelligent and piercing with the underlining material, Ramis and his fellow screenwriters opt to make a more audience and young adolescent-friendly buddy comedy that hones its focus on puerile and gross out sight gags.  Knowing that an astute and razor sharp witted filmmaker like Ramis was behind this going in, I was unpleasantly shocked by what a scattershot final product we have here in YEAR ONE.  It's disconcerting to see a major talent fail to reign in a decent premise, especially for how he squanders its potential by relying on too much potty mouthed and disgusting bathroom humor involving bodily fluids.  I really don’t like it when promising comedies devolve into desperate, dime-a-dozen, and woefully generic pap.  Ramis is above this type of mediocrity.

As the film opens we are introduced to two very dim-witted and naïve hunter-gatherers: one is a truly clumsy and oafish hunter-wannabe named Zed (Jack Black, in full-on preening, look at me Jack Black mode) and the other is the equally intellectually stunted Oh (a more nuanced Michael Cera).  On the outside, these two caveman-misfits look like Neanderthals, but beyond their somewhat savage façade lurks contemporary verbal flair and mannerisms.  Part of the intended laughs, I guess, are that seeing Cera and Black play their characters with a modern flavour would serve as a hilarious counterpunch to the brutish and uncivilized nature of their times and environment, which holds true to a small degree.  One very early funny bit involves Oh trying to figure out what the best way to woo a local tribal hotty, Eema (Juno Phillips) back into his hut.  Zed steadfastly explains to him that the best approach would be to whack her over the head with a club and drag her back home.  Oh tries this barbaric pickup, with predictably humorous results.  Even cavemen women don't like to be treated like skanks. 

These opening scenes ignite a certain level of idle curiosity, not to mention that you get the impression that this will be ostensibly a “caveman comedy.”  But the film takes an abrupt u-turn with its historical time, especially when the hapless Zed and Oh come across the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with fruit that, yup, no one is supposed to eat.   Zed plucks a piece off and abruptly eats it (“Kind of has a knowledgey taste,” he spouts out, to which Oh uproariously deadpans, “Well, it also must have a sort of Forbidden taste too, because that’s what it is.”).  Needless to say, when the tribe finds out Zed’s salacious actions both he and Oh are banished.  No problem for Zed, as he sees this as a distinct opportunity for he and his bff to go on a journey and start their own tribe…. just as long they don’t hit the “end” of the earth, because, really, they would most certainly fall off of the edge. 

From this point on the film takes a categorical turn into strictly Biblical territory.  As Zed and Oh go on their trip of spiritual self-discovery the find themselves coming across many colorful characters, like two bickering brothers named Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd, dreadfully underused), who can’t seem to maintain a civil conversation with each other without it erupting into a slugfest.  Unfortunately, Cain does murder his brother (in an irritating scene that is not at all funny where Cain mercilessly beats Abel over in the head with a rock, only with him continually returning to consciousness) and decides to join Zed and Oh on their next meeting with Abraham (played in a side-splitting cameo by the great Hank Azaria), who makes his rather solemn figure into a grade-A lunatic:  Azaria’s pitch perfect deadpan delivery only heightens the obliviousness of Abraham’s self-righteousness.  You see, he takes the rather cavalier attitude of wanting to circumcise everyone in his village, including the rather horrified Zed and Oh.  Well, at least he consoles them by telling them that there is nothing better in life than a  circumcision, mostly because it gives men “a rather sleek look.”   

Needless to say, Zed and Oh manage to leave Abraham behind with most of their manhood in tack and their long journey ultimately leads them to discover that the women of their tribe that they were both lusting over have been turned into slaves at Sodom and Gomorrah.  The prospect of going to Sodom and Gomorrah really jazzes up the sex-starved, woman hungry Zed, but obvious attempts have been made here to ensure that this film version of the two cities spited and later destroyed by God for their sexual deviancy is strictly of the PG-13 variety (if, of course, you exclude one foul and naughty little bit involving a slave girl making advances on Zed by performing oral sex on a banana).  There are some good and hearty laughs during this extended third act, especially during one moment that shows Zed’s incredulous reaction to a girl being sacrificed to the Gods (“Seems like a waste of a perfectly good virgin to me!”).  Oh and Eema perhaps have the sharpest exchange in the film when he asks the new slave girl when her shift ends so that they can get together, but she matter-of-factly explains to him that she will “never” get off, seeing as she’s “a slave.”  Well....duh.

Small moments like were side-splitting, as were a few other scattered scenes of merriment.  Azaria, as stated, is a giddy riot as the foreskin-removing-obsessed Abraham, who really goes out of his way to impart on every man he comes across why circumcision is a very necessary cosmetic surgery (as he did recently in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE FOR THE SMITHSONIAN, Azaria is a strong enough comedic presence to hijack just about any comedy from its lead performers) .  He also has the film’s best throwaway line: “We Hebrews are righteous people, but not very good at sports.”  I also chuckled at David Cross’s interpretation of Cain, who hilariously lets his smarmy ego cheaply override any semblance of culpability in his brother’s killing.  I also admired one sly scene where Zed and Oh discover the wheel and, when they are later seen on a horse drawn cart, they wave their hands in the air and scream like they are on a roller coaster. 

As much as I vigorously laughed through some of YEAR ONE, there is simply no denying that the film degenerates far too frequently into a lazy and generic over-reliance on witless and banal jokes that involve…let me recall, now…farting, feces, smelling feces, tasting feces, urine, urinating on one’s face, many scatological gags involving male and female anatomy as well as some truly archaic jabs at homosexuals.  Oliver Pratt shows up in what has to be one of the most teeth grating supporting comedic performances in a long time as the Sodom high priest that is an obnoxious gay stereotype to the point of despicable caricature.  He has a lisp (also a sign of script’s desperation), which helps to cement his gayness, but what really hammers his sexual proclivities home  is when he insists that his new slave, Oh, rubs his outlandishly hairy chest with oil.  Ramis lingers on this scene with close-up after close-up of Cera massaging his fingers through the soup-like clump of the Priest’s chest mane, which becomes more of an unappetizing sight than a funny one.  Seeing sequences like this – not to mention a totally unnecessary gag involving Zed taste testing a piece of fecal matter to determine its origin – made me doubt Ramis’ typically assured comic wits.  It’s really sad to see his name associated with such uncultured and tasteless shenanigans that any hack comedic writer could have pulled off in any run-of-the-mill gross-out comedy; Ramis’ timing and choices here seem way off.  Did someone put a gun to his head and force him to put more poop, piss, and puke  jokes in the film?  Seems like it.

Jack Black is another problem: In the past I have admired, from time to time, his steadfast and headstrong boisterous comic energy and his willingness to make himself look as outlandish as possible.  With a pudgy exterior, eyebrows that have their own range of devious expressiveness, and a plucky exuberance, his buffoon-like man-child antics are usually likeable.  Yet, in YEAR ONE he seems to be phoning in his shtick to egregious, self-promoting levels, so much so that he often comes off as a distraction.  More often than not, his juvenile high jinks are high on silly liveliness but decidedly low on refinement and tact.  The best comic actors impeccably understand that engaging in non-stop scenery chewing works only to a fault. 

Michael Cera, on the other hand, is a very agreeable comic foil to the madcap and caffeinated hysterics that Black engages in.  Much like in his past comedies, like SUPERBAD, JUNO, and NICK AND NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, Cera shows what an uncanny master of underplaying dry, improvisational drollness.  He also shows unimpeachable timing and a soft spoken paranoid and sardonic edge.  Just look at how he generates a huge laugh with even the smallest throwaway line, like when he states, “Well there won't be any berries in the fruit salad now, so we all lose” after a goon from his tribe sabotages his gathering plate.  His less-is-more comic approach steals the film away from Black in scene after scene.  There are few actors out there - young or not – that are as good as Cera at playing self-deprecating and discomforting unease as strongly as he does.  YEAR ONE is a funnier film than it should be because of his participation.

Unfortunately, Cera – and most certainly Harold Ramis – deserve much better than what is chiefly on display in YEAR ONE.  As an ancient civilization film crossed with Bible parables, the film certainly could have attained a level of sharp and scathing satire that it should have garnered.  Considering Ramis’ past resume, YEAR ONE should have been sharper, more instinctive, and more sophisticated with its execution.  Regrettably, Ramis lets his characteristically strong comedic chops take a back seat to too much uncoordinated silliness and lewdness, the latter elements that unavoidably leaves YEAR ONE feeling more like a half-baked series of irregularly funny skits stuck in-between moments of bawdy and substandard gags.  Ramis’ perceptive edge and knack for observational comedy feels infrequent throughout YEAR ONE.  Ultimately, it’s a comedy with sporadic good laughs that are far too overshadowed by slack-jawed ones that elicit groans and fretfulness.  It's like the film was hijacked from itself.

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