Friday, June 19, 2009

Film review: 'Year One' an unfunny comedic fossil

Jack Black, left, and Michael Cera in Year One.

By John Thomason

Year One is grounded in a premise so thin it’s practically invisible. “Hey, studio executives, wouldn’t it be great if we cast Jack Black and Michael Cera doing and saying exactly the same things they do and say in every modern picture, but set it in Biblical times? What a riot!”

This is what the filmmakers are banking on: that you’ll find the very idea of Black and Cera talking with the slang, cadences and dialects of the year 2009 while living in the year 1 to be a stroke of genius. Perhaps, under the auspices of a more inspired collective, the idea might have turned into something worth your laughter. But in the creatively atrophying hands of director Harold Ramis – who hasn’t made a good movie in roughly 17 years – Year One is a sloppily contrived Saturday Night Live sketch that stays 90 minutes past its welcome.

The movie’s comedic tone strikes an unpleasant combination between the head-shakingly repulsive (Black analyzing, then tasting, a pile of dung) and the hopelessly Catskillian (“We are Hebrews,” a character proclaims, “A righteous people, but not very good at sports.” Har-har). Any attempt to out-gross its R-rated competition with PG-13 envelope-pushing is going to fail, and the Borscht Belt religious jokes will only appeal to those for whom Mel Brooks’ and the Monty Pythons team’s irreverent takes on the dawn of time proved too highbrow. The movie’s heresy is so middle-of-the-road that even evangelicals will find little content worth their boycott.

Black plays the pudgy, incompetent but naively self-important hunter Zed, whose ineptitude with a wisecrack is as obvious as his flaccidness with the bow and arrow. Cera is Oh, his only friend in the village, a brainy but cripplingly meek gatherer. Both actors simply regurgitate their established archetypes, letting the setting provide the intended humor. Unable to lure their love interests (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple), Zed and Oh fall into their roles as the village’s idiots, prone to things such as eating forbidden fruit and accidentally torching their huts.

Banished from their land, they spend the film roaming a Biblical landscape looking to start their own community. Their journey becomes a comedy/adventure road film populated by familiar faces, and without much in the way of comedic inspiration or interesting storytelling, the film’s only enjoyment is a game of Name That Cameo.

The supporting cast is chockablock with talented comedians dressing ridiculously. Look, there’s David Cross and Paul Rudd as everyone’s favorite bickering brothers, Cain and Abel! Look, it’s Hank Azaria and that dweeb from Superbad as Abraham and Isaac, and Abe has a wacky new idea to cut off everybody’s foreskins! Look, it’s Oliver Platt as a grotesque, hirsute, flamingly homosexual high priest!

Zed and Oh’s road trip eventually wends into Sodom, where clunky fight scenes vie with the strained humor, and the two inept leading boys get the girls and blossom into men.

Year One is surely the worst film to bear the brand of Judd Apatow since the longtime comedy producer dipped into directing his own stuff. It’s worse when held up to recent Apatow productions like Pineapple Express, a film that hilariously skewered the very buddy-movie formula Year One so banally celebrates.

God may have created the heavens and the Earth, but something tells me He’ll never take responsibility for the likes of Year One.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

YEAR ONE. Distributor: Sony; Director: Harold Ramis; Cast: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, June Diane Raphael, Juno Temple, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria and Harold Ramis; Opens: Today; Venue: Most commercial houses

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