Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content throughout, brief Strong Language and Comic Violence
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde & June Diane Raphael
Harold Ramis proved himself to be a strong force in cinematic comedy with CADDYSHACK, VACATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. His final stint as a writer and director came in 2009’s YEAR ONE. The film was being promoted as a potential big summer blockbuster, but fell short of studio box office estimates and audience’s/critics’ expectations alike. YEAR ONE is far from Ramis’s best work, but there is entertainment to be found here. This film suffers from a jumbled narrative, cheap gross-out gags, and dusty jokes, but does contain solid moments and some clever writing.
Zed is an overconfident hunter. Oh is a shy gatherer. Both are outcasts in their tribe, but Zed aims to change this by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This scheme backfires as Zed and Oh are banished from their small community and take off on history’s first road trip. Along their way, they run into a variety of colorful Biblical figures (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the city of Sodom). They quickly discover that they might have a further purpose to serve when the cavemen and cavewomen of their community are captured as slaves. Along the way, Zed tries to find himself as a hero and Oh has an internal debate about the existence of God.
YEAR ONE isn’t up to the same level as Ramis’s other comedies. This is evident by an overreliance on gross-out gags. The film’s tone becomes entirely too juvenile in scenes of Jack Black eating poop, Michael Cera sleeping with a flatulent roommate, and an upside-down Cera urinating on himself. These cheap moments of crude humor stick out further when you consider how smartly written other parts of the screenplay are. Even though their dialogue quickly devolves into penis humor, the introduction of Abraham (a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing McLovin in Biblical times) is entertaining and borderline blasphemous. My personal favorite moments involve the wicked, guilt-ridden Cain (David Cross delivering the best performance in the film). Vinnie Jones also receives a few good scenes as the hulking Sargon, who mainly serves as an intimidating straight-man to the absurdity surrounding him.
YEAR ONE’s biggest pitfall comes in Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh being the least interesting characters in the entire movie. Every performer surrounding them manages to be far more entertaining than these two boring protagonists. Black is doing his typical loud idiot shtick and Cera is playing his usual awkward persona, the would-be hook is that they’re doing these routines in various Biblical costumes. On a positive note, Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in as the overly flamboyant High Priest. Platt, David Cross, Vinnie Jones, and borderline sacrilegious humor are the film’s highlights. It’s a pity that the rest of the writing and performances aren’t nearly on the same level of hilarity.
YEAR ONE’s flaws don’t simply stay with its overreliance on potty humor and bland protagonists, but also extends to a rather jumbled narrative. The film is essentially a Monty Python wannabe as it goes from skit-like segment to skit-like segment, but some of these (especially during the first third) don’t have any punch line to be found. When Oh is being attacked by a snake in the forbidden garden, we never see how it turns out. Less than ten minutes later, the same exact situation occurs again with a cougar and there’s still no punch line. A couple of haphazard lines of dialogue could have patched these plot gaps up, but the three screenwriters didn’t even bother to put that much effort into the script.
While YEAR ONE has its moments (sacrifices being watched as sports-like entertainment, an intense” chase between two slow-moving carts, Cain being a constant asshole), it also relies far too much on poop, fart, and sex gags. It’s not that crude humor can’t be funny, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort being put into these jokes (save for a Eunuch character). YEAR ONE isn’t technically “good” due to a messy script, lame-brained jokes that fall flat, and two boring leads, but I enjoy it on a “guilty pleasure” level. If you’re looking for something that is light-hearted, dumb as a rock, and will kill 97 minutes of your life, then I’d recommend YEAR ONE on those merits. Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity.