by Mel Valentin
You know (or should know) youíre in trouble as a writer or director when the best (ďbestĒ being relative, of course) you can come up with are feces, foreskin, and fart jokes. That, in brief, describes "Year One," a comedy co-written and directed by Harold Ramis ("The Ice Harvest," "Analyze That," "Bedazzled," "Analyze This," "Multiplicity," "Groundhog Day," "Caddyshack") that aims for Monty Python (as in "Life of Brian") laughs, but ends up offering laughs (ďlaughsĒ might be too strong a word to use here) cribbed from Mel Brooksí "History of the World Part I," the camp-cult classic, "One Million Years, B.C.," or the non-cult-classic, "Caveman."Set, at least at first, during the millennia-long period when humans hunted and gathered, lived in primitive villages, and wore clothes made from animal skins, Year One kicks off with a hunt gone wrong. The hapless, ineffectual hunter, Zed (Jack Black), is the laughing stock of his village. His best friend, Oh (Michael Cera), is treated even worse: heís relegated to gathering fruits and vegetables with the other ďgatherers,Ē the women of their unnamed tribe. Oh has an eye on Zedís sister, Eema ( Juno Temple), but she wonít give him the time of day (or night). Tired of being the low man on the totem pole and rejected by Maya (June Diane Raphael), Zed decides to take a bite out of a golden apple from the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge. He thinks itíll make him smarter. Instead, it just makes his ego even bigger.
"Hey look everyone, Ghostbusters is on cable..."
Of course, breaking a taboo comes with a price and, once Zedís actions are discovered, heís exiled from the tribe. Oh wants to remain behind, but as Zedís one and only friend, he ends up accompanying Zed, who promises a world beyond the mountains that surround their village (Oh believes the world ends at the mountainís edge). On the other side of the mountain, Zed and Oh encounter two brothers, Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd), in the middle of a heated dispute. As anyone familiar with the Cain and Abel biblical story knows, Cainís anger toward Abelís favored son status leads to murder, Abelís. In one of the few semi-hilarious moments in Year One, Abel proves to be more resilient than the Old Testament indicates, but Cain wonít be denied his status as the first brother-killer.
Zed and Ohís adventures take them next to Cainís village where Cain pleads innocence in Abelís disappearance and, later, murder, then an encounter with the vision-mad Abraham (Hank Azaria) just as heís about to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to his Old Testament god. Luckily for Isaac, Abraham sees the arrival of Zed and Oh as a sign from God, but it doesnít take long before Zed and Oh end up in Sodom (of Sodom and Gomorrah infamy) where they discover Maya and Eema, sold into slavery, a beautiful, power-hungry, Inanna (Olivia Wilde), and a queeny, makeup-wearing High Priest (Oliver Platt), with a penchant for young slave boys.
With naÔve, uncultured protagonists who speak in modern lingo and exhibit modern sensibilities set against biblical stories drawn from the Old Testament, Ramis and his writing partners, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, obviously thought they had a premise they could exploit for 90-minutes worth of screen time. They either overestimated the possibilities inherent in the premise or simply werenít up to the task of exploiting it fully. Either way, Year One fails as a comedy. The jokes in Year One are, at best marginally funny and, at worst, unbearably unfunny. The lack of imagination is stunning for all the talent involved in front of and behind the camera.
Ramis and his writers revert to jokes that gross-out gags or, to be blunt, fag jokes, all in an effort to win over simple-minded moviegoers. Oliver Platt camps it up as Sodomís gluttonous, hirsute, mascara-wearing high priest who prefers young males for carnal companionship. In other words, heís every gay stereotype rolled up into one, offensive character. Zed and Oh arenít much better. Zed is the over-confident, intellectually challenged, obnoxious, libido-driven man-child weíve seen Jack Black essay time and again. As played by the ubiquitous Michael Cera, Oh is short on self-confidence, long on pauses between words and phrases. Heís meant to be cool in his ironic uncoolness, but like Black, weíve seen Cera play this role before and, frankly, itís time Cera tries to expand his range (or go back to acting school).For a writer-director with his impressive track record, Ramis seems to have lost all sense of comic timing. With editing so slack it seems like Ramis intentionally left dead spots for laughter or applause from the audience, "Year One" feels curiously inert (because it is). If the result is any indication, "Year One" was better suited to a sketch or a series of sketches than a 90-minute feature film short on real laughs and long on stale jokes.
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originally posted: 06/19/09 12:00:00