'Year One,' Audience Zero
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In "Year One," Jack Black and Michael Cera play Zed and Oh, hipster primitives exiled from their prehistoric village who find themselves bumping into a who's who of the Book of Genesis before getting caught up in the affairs of the day as they make their way to Sodom. (You may have heard of it -- right next to Gomorrah? Kind of a party town?) With Black's manic modern manner and Cera's 21st-century self-consciousness wrapped up in loincloths and togas, "Year One" promises the kind of stupid-smart highbrow-lowbrow goofiness Mel Brooks gave us in "History of the World: Part 1."
And that's partially correct, in that "Year One" is the kind of stuff Mel Brooks would have whipped up back in the day -- and, frankly, whipped through in about a half-hour. "Year One" is full of funny people and funny moments, but they hang and dangle in a movie that's awkwardly, embarrassingly long, where the running time stretches out and dilutes the laughs down to almost nothing. Black and Cera are both game, and the movie gets some mileage out of the contrast between their modern manners and their primitive times, or primitive things said with calm and cheer. Advising Cera's Oh on how to woo a girl in the village, Black's Zed is nonchalant: "Give her a little tap on the head -- women really respond to that.
And there are other laughs in "Year One," usually when a supporting actor briefly pops up. David Cross and Paul Rudd make for a fun Cain and Abel, with Cross' wormy, squirmy Cain along for a lot of the ride. Hank Azaria's unhinged Abraham seems to have arrived in the Holy Land by way of the borscht belt, but still scores a few laughs as he articulates -- at great length, in great detail -- his, and Yaweh's, interest in circumcision. And Olivia Wilde and Oliver Platt channel every British-accented actor who ever slummed through the ancient world in a big-budget epic as the princess and high priest of Sodom, ripping off everything from Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra" to Peter Ustinov in "Spartacus."
At the same time, plenty of scenes fizzle into weak transitions, and Black and Cera are such passive protagonists that they feel like guest stars in their own movie. Black can still get laughs inventing new turns of phrase out loud ("I couldn't agree more! I'm trying to agree more, but I can't -- that's how much I agree!") and Cera's sensitive Stone Age guy act is funny, but too many scenes don't have an actual ending, or an actual point, and the movie just sleepwalks from bit to bit, a comedy so laid-back it slumps off the screen.
Director Harold Ramis has said that "Year One" is an attempt to look at where irrational religious belief came from, and comes from, with Zed and Oh's exposing of the failings and flaws of their primitive, superstitious time encouraging us to look at our primitive superstitions. That's a great idea, and I wish it were in the movie; as it is, the script (credited to Ramis and "The Office" writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg) just wanders from historical era to historical era as our lead characters go from loincloths to tunics, from the woods of their village to the temples of Sodom. Maybe a slightly more focused point of view -- or point to it all -- might have kept "Year One" from feeling as half-baked as it does.
If "Year One" is meant as social satire, it wastes too much time on poo jokes and other gross-out bits; if was meant as a silly, goofy comedy, Ramis and his team should have picked up the pace and fluffed up the funny. ("Year One" was originally R-rated, but was whittled down to a PG-13. I can't imagine that too much was lost in the trimming process.) "Year One" is more slapstick than satirical, more bland than blasphemous, too poky to pop. The production values feel expensive, but the script feels bargain-basement. You get the feeling that, at some point, it was taken on faith that just having Black and Cera in prehistoric costumes and wigs was going to make "Year One" hilarious. One of the worst things in "Year One" is watching fun performances and clever scenes sacrificed in the name of that sadly mistaken faith.
Also: 'Year One' Set VisitJames Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.