Movie Review: Year One Is A Lifeless, Laughless Throwback

In the wickedly underrated David Wain comedy Wet Hot American Summer, there is a sequence where Michael Showalter, in character as a stand-up comic geezer, entertains a bunch of kids at camp with awful jokes about the Stone Age. The joke isn't his routine, but that the kids are laughing at these terrible, stale caveman gags. Thinking along those lines, I'd be happier (though unconvinced) if Harold Ramis argued that his new movie Year One was a full-length meta comedy about terrible jokes, though I know it's just a bad, ramshackle movie that assumes its audience is comprised primarily of children.

No topic is off limits for comedy in Year One, which means I should love it. Characters eat poo, urinate on themselves, carry around desiccated testicles and are coerced into uncomfortable homosexual situations. I expect to write more or less the same description for Bruno in a couple of weeks, but there will, I hope, be one difference: I pray that Bruno will make me laugh frequently, rather than fitfully.

Year One very vaguely recounts the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. It's more like the Cliff Notes version, as summarized by an ADD student that spent most of his study time drawing tigers in a Trapper Keeper. Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are forced to flee their village after Zed eats from the Tree of Good and Evil. Out in the big bad world, they run into Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd) and the circumcision-happy Abraham and his son Isaac. (Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Two girls Zed and Oh had crushes on back home have been sold into slavery, and most of the cast ends up in Sodom, where the two leads attempt to free their would-be girlfriends. Hijinks ensue.

The plot only barely sticks; this is more a sketch film than anything else. Year One would rather indulge a moment where Michael Cera has to rub oil on the chest of Oliver Platt's High Priest of Sodom, who is carpeted with body hair like a Labrador. That's the setup — Platt is gay and hairy, and Cera isn't — but this film treats it like the payoff. That's the entire comedic mode here: ridiculous situations with very little follow-through. It's Epic Movie-style filmmaking with a comedy all-star cast. The laughs I got out of it were purely due to moments of outrageousness that mock the PG-13 rating.

Jack Black and Michael Cera are playing themselves, or loincloth-clad versions of their typical screen personas, but Cera at least has the timing and sensibility to throw off a handful of great asides. He can really kill with a barely audible bit of wry commentary, playing the sharp-eyed outsider who just needs the confidence to jump into life. Black, meanwhile, is always working with his mouth set to eleven and facial expressions that make vaudeville look subtle. Though Black's schtick is old enough to fit right in with Year One's concept, it can be channeled into comedy. But you get the idea that Harold Ramis didn't direct so much as occasionally give the high sign to turn on the camera.


The supporting cast doesn't get much of a chance to save scenes. Bill Hader does a bit of funny patter under full makeup that leaves him almost unrecognizable. The women, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde and June Diane Raphael, are periodically dangled as eye candy, but the closest any comes to being a character are moments where Raphael, as the object of Black's affections, gets to tell him that the entire movie is his fault. Don't hope for much out of David Cross, either; his only joke is that Cain is selfish, and it's played as broad and thin as the rest of the movie.

The end result of this stinker doesn't have anything to do with Year One, but with the proposed Ghostbusters 3, for which  screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky are writing a draft, and in which Harold Ramis may be intimately involved. It's easy to suppose that a lot of the screenplay here was used as a base guideline at best, but there are so few glimmers of character here that the idea of this team resurrecting the Ghostbusters franchise seems like a more terrible idea than ever.

/Film rating: 3 out of 10