Movie Review: Year One (2009)

Michael Cera, Jack Black and David Cross in Year One

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Year One seems to prove that occasionally there is an actual line between success and failure with no in-between, and this is a film that could have just as easily fallen onto the side of success as it did onto the side of failure. Make no mistake about it, Year One is an absolute dud of a film. This one is dead on arrival and hardly makes an attempt to resuscitate itself. While there are a couple of snicker-worthy moments, the majority of this film falls flat on its face.

Directed and co-written by Harold Ramis, Year One carries a lot of heavy weight when it comes to comedic talent from the top down. The main protagonists of the story are two outcast cavemen named Zed and Oh played by Jack Black and Michael Cera, two comedic actors that couldn’t be operating any further from each other on the spectrum. Cera brings his usual dry and reserved flavor while Black not so much acts out his part as he shouts it out in what makes the film appear to be more of a stage rehearsal than an actual movie.

Scenes are framed lazily and jokes are strung out so long they go from mildly humorous to intensely annoying. The introduction of David Cross and Paul Rudd as Cain and Abel was a stroke of genius casting, but the scene feels like a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which the two actors were asked to improvise until they got it right… They never did. As Zed and Oh journey further outside their forest dwellings they find themselves meeting more and more historical figures in something of a Bible’s greatest hits using the book of Genesis as its muse even though this is hardly operating as any kind of dedicated storytelling.

The story leads Zed and Oh to Sodom and along the way they encounter Abraham (Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), have to deal with the introduction of circumcision and the sacrificing of virgins all while going through so many wardrobe changes you wonder why no one was around to do their hair — a concept that could have actually benefit this stinker.

While originally banished from their tribe as a result of Zed’s feasting on the fruit from the forbidden tree, their goal becomes rescuing the loves of their lives — Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple) — who have been captured by the Romans led by Sargon (Vinnie Jones) and taken to Sodom to work as slaves for Princess Inanna (Olivia Wilde).

The name dropping doesn’t stop there as Oliver Platt plays a furried, over-sized high priest, but this is just one example of the cheap humor this film basks in, making no attempts to develop a punch line as much as show you silly antics for a cheap laugh. Early on Zed eats bear poop; Oh sleeps next to a man who confesses to raping goats and enjoys farting during the night for a laugh; and the high priest has something of an affection for Oh and asks him to rub oil all over his hairy chest. Scenes like these are wastelands when it comes to laughter just as is this entire film, but it didn’t need to be.

Ramis is an accomplished comedic director and it surprises me he would lower himself to such bargain-basement attempts at laughter. I’m not sure if it was the last minute decision to recut the film from an R-rating to PG-13 that ripped the life out of the picture or if it just never worked out the way it was intended, but some genuinely fine moments were forgotten as the film moved on.

One such great running punch line that was abandoned midway through involved two separate occasions in which Oh found himself in impossible situations. The first of which had him being completely suffocated by a python only to have a jump cut showing him safe and sound back at camp. A similar moment followed shortly thereafter leading me to believe we may be in Mel Brooks’s territory, but that was it. I can’t imagine a better director to pick up the Mel Brooks mantle than Harold Ramis and it seems as if he reached for it with this one, but someone either pulled him back or he didn’t have the nerve to actually pick it up.

Ramis racked up the talent to give this story a run, but it never got out of the starting gate. You can be assured there will be an Unrated/R-rated DVD edition and perhaps we will then have something more than poop and fart jokes, but for now that’s all this film offers.

GRADE: D-

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