Year One (United States, 2009)June 18, 2009
Two weeks ago, I wrote that, while watching Land of the Lost, I felt a sense of depression. That feeling revisited me during Year One, an inexplicably unfunny comedy made by two people who have proven they can do much better: director/co-writer Harold Ramis and co-producer Judd Apatow. Filled to the point of overflowing with gross-out humor, Year One might get some belly laughs from six and seven year olds, who can't resist giggling at the image of someone farting or peeing on himself, but I found the most extreme material to be so tasteless that it voided all comedy. And, when one gets beyond the scatological elements, the rest of the jokes are obligatory, rarely generating more than cursory chuckles.
Year One treats the Biblical book of "Genesis" not as a chronology of events but as a geographical roadmap. The Garden of Eden is here; Cain, Abel, Adam, and Eve are there; Abraham and Isaac are in yet another location; and Sodom and Gomorrah are elsewhere - all separated not by time but by distance. I was a little disappointed that the world isn't big enough for Noah and Moses, but I suppose it's necessary to hold something back in the (hopefully unlikely) case there's a sequel (which would, I suppose, be called Year Two). The film isn't precisely a satire of Bible stories - it might have worked better had that been the objective . Instead, it's a mismatched buddy movie that tosses in some Biblical names and locations.
Knowing Ramis' track record (admittedly spotty of late but strong overall) and recognizing the underlying premise, I was hoping for something along the lines of Monty Python and the Life of Brian. Fifteen minutes into the film, I had downgraded those expectations to The History of the World Part One. Another quarter hour later, I was desperately wishing that Year One wouldn't go as far off the tracks as Land of the Lost did. It managed to avoid a complete derailment, but only barely.
The film opens by introducing two early men: inept hunter Zed (Jack Black) and equally inept gatherer Oh (Michael Cera). Neither has much luck with women - Maya (June Diane Raphael), the object of Zed's lust, views him as an unlikely provider, and Eema (Juno Temple), Oh's would be bedmate, doesn't know he exists. When Zed violates tribal law by eating of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge while Oh gets wrapped up by a boa constrictor, the pair are exiled. They wander around a bit before coming upon quarreling brothers Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd). After killing his brother, Cain brings his new buddies home to meet Mom and Dad. The next day, it's back on the road. A few misadventures later, Zed and Oh are headed for Sodom and Gomorrah, where Maya and Eema are being held as slaves. As they approach the city, Zed is certain he is the Chosen of God, but Oh isn't so sure.
For me, a little Jack Black generally goes a long way. Black's best work has been in supporting roles; his prickly, hammy personality quickly wears out its welcome when he has too much screen time. That happens in Year One by about the ten-minute mark. His coupling with Michael Cera is ill-conceived. Cera has an extremely limited range - the insecure teenager - in which he is effective. Outside of it, as is the case here, he appears lost. Year One wants us to see Zed and Oh as the stone age equivalent of Oscar and Felix, but the attempt fails so utterly that it won't occur even to those who know who Oscar and Felix are.
Perhaps the great mystery surrounding Year One is how it wrangled a PG-13 rating from an increasingly inconsistent MPAA. (Slumdog Millionaire: R; Year One: PG-13 - can someone explain that?) Apparently, there were some edits, but the end result is still easily the most raunchy PG-13 I have seen. A few years ago, Judd Apatow declared that he was going to put a penis in every movie. He doesn't get a flesh-and-blood one into Year One, but there are more phallic symbols than in a telephone pole farm. There are dick jokes and gay jokes, and those are the ones in good taste. Moments that will have the seven-year-olds rolling in the aisles include a fart that goes on far too long and includes more than a whiff of diarrhea, Zed munching happily on human excrement, and Oh urinating all over his face. The question isn't what this material is doing in a PG-13 movie; it's what it's doing in any movie. Many things are forgiven in the name of comedy, but this isn't funny. It's just gross. People sitting around me were cringing, not laughing.
Arguably, the comedic highlight of Year One (to the extent there is one) is Hank Azaria's Shatneresque interpretation of Abraham. His ultra-serious, deadpan delivery brings a smile to the face, although it doesn't last long due in large part to Azaria's limited screen time. Abraham isn't around for more than a few brief scenes; he's just a colorful side character on Zed and Oh's Genesis road trip. After fleeing during the night after Abraham starts talking about cutting foreskins, it's on to Sodom and Gomorrah, and that's where Year One, already barely treading water, sinks like a stone, plummeting all the way into Disaster Movie territory.
If there's a moral to Year One, it's something financial planners always warn about: past performance does not guarantee future results. In the case of Harold Ramis and Judd Apatow, this film is an object lesson as far as that precept is concerned. As punishment, they should be forced to watch 10,000 B.C. and Wholly Moses! five times each.
Year One (United States, 2009)
Cast: Jack Black, Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, Vinnie Jones, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Cross, Oliver Platt, Michael Cera, June Diane Raphael
Screenplay: Harold Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg
Cinematography: Alar Kivilo
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures