So, you want to see Jack Black doing his familiar funny routine again? Or maybe you prefer a crude comedy filled with disgusting bathroom humor and repulsive sexual innuendo? How about a violent historical epic filled with brain-bashing, whipping, severed heads (implied rather than shown), and human sacrifice? Better yet, why not a scathing satire on Old Testament morality, in which two goofy hunter-gatherers encounter Biblical characters – both pagans and Jews – and find their practices to be equally barbaric? If you would like to see any of those – better yet, if you would like to see all of those – YEAR ONE is your movie.
As you can imagine from the above description, YEAR ONE is quite a mixed bag of nuts – actually, more like a bag of trail mix with the occasional piece of rat dung passing for a raisin, which could repulse viewers who might appreciate the satirical aspects. But if you can supress your gag reflex and sift through the film carefully, it ascends to hyperventilating levels of hilarity.
Most of the genuinely funny humor derives from the anachronism of taking two characters with 21st century sensibilities, placing them a prehistoric context, and letting them riff away on what they see around them. Steve Martin already did this in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch decades ago, but YEAR ONE takes the concept a step further: in the grand tradition of ironic characters like Sancho Panza, Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are benighted fools whose words and actions pop the pompous bubble of the pretentious people they meet, and some of those people are respect figures who would seem to be off-limits. You see, YEAR ONE is less intent on spoofing cinematic depictions of primitive culture (such as QUEST FOR FIRE or CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR) than on going after bigger, Biblical game – namely, the Book of Genesis.
To this end, YEAR ONE brings out heroes face to face with authority figures who are supposed to represent what is good; however, it turns out that our two ordinary guys, relying on common sense and common decency, have a better grasp of right and wrong, first preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son to Yahweh and later putting a stop to the human sacrifices in Sodom. As Abraham, Azaria is the absolute hysterical highlight; his wild-eyed fanaticism and penchant for hitting the word “God” with just the right exaggerated emphasis turn the revered figure into the equivalent of a religious wacko who today would be shouting on a street corner while passersby shied away.
This attack upon religious authority may suggest an Old Testament variation on MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN, but it comes closer in tone to ANIMAL HOUSE, with Zed and Oh standing in for the pledges of Delta House. This should be no surprise, as YEAR ONE’S director and co-writer Harold Ramis (who also plays a straight-man role as Adam) contributed to the ANIMAL HOUSE script. Here, he transposes that formula to Biblical times with mostly felicitous results; you just wish he could have reigned in some of the vulgarity for the sake of sharpening the satire.
The pandering to the summer teen crowd blunts the iconoclasm. Ramis botches the tonal shifts from slapstick to satire, and he hasn’t got the directorial chops to turn the occasional violence and death into a madcap Monty Python-ish gorefest . The one time he goes more full bore makes you realize why he held off in other scenes: the murder of Abel by his brother Cain is painfully unfunny, all the more so because it goes on and on – somehow without going far enough over-the-top to seem like black humor instead of just unpleasant brutality.
There are a other stumbling points, including a couple of scenes that end before they reach a punchline (as when the snake constricts around Oh’s neck). The briefly seen character of Lilith (who appears in Jewish tradition as either the spiritual first wife of Adam or baby-killing witch) is here portrayed as an ordinary lesbian. There is a certain humor in the uncomprehending look on Zed’s face when he hears the news, but the scene inverts YEAR ONE’s overall scheme: suddenly Zed is the ignorant primitive confronted by a character with a 21st century attitude. And it’s anyone’s guess why Oh feels the need to apologize to his would-be girlfriend after she sees him rubbing oil onto the chest of Sodom’s High Priest: she’s a slave who has to do as she is ordered, and she knows perfectly well that Oh is in the same position.
Fortunately, most of the mistakes take place early. Once Ramis dispense with the flatulence and hits his groove, YEAR ONE really works; the bright points – which include Oliver Platt as the sleazy High Priest – eclipse the failings, and the film emerges as an impressive laugh fest that really does score a few points with it satirical barbs.
It is especially nice that Ramis avoids falling into the simplistic trap of equating religion with sexual repression and concluding that the free-wheeling Sodomites are therefore the good guys. Instead, YEAR ONE depicts their so-called sexual freedom as the freedom of of an authoritarian, patriarchal society to enslave others, particularly women, for use by those in power. It is up to our ironic iconoclasts – not avenging angels of the Lord – to bring down the temple of Sodom and overturn their superstitious religious beliefs, presenting the populace with a more secular philosophy instead.
Through it all, Jack Black and Michael Cera do excellent work as this generation’s would-be Laural and Hardy. Black does his usual shtick – but it feels different here because he is so wildly out of place in these pre-historical surroundings. Cera carefully plays the second banana character in a winning way; somehow the wimpy, reactive buddy is as funny as the more overblown character. By the end, you would be happy to sit through a series of films with these guys.
YEAR ONE(2009). Directed by Harold Ramis. Screenplay by Harold Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg. Cast: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, June Diane Raphael Xander Berkeley, Gia Carides, Horatio Sanz, David Pasquesi, Matthew Willig, Harold Ramis.