When it comes to comedy, the process really is ninety-nine percent perspiration. Airplane! for example went through an extensive screening process that saw Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers relentlessly scrutinize the film, removing jokes that fell flat and re-inserting new ones, resulting in a film many consider the greatest comedy of all time. There are comedies that in the right hands become a labor of love, the effort and dedication poured into which would rival the most prestigious award’s picture. This is not one of those comedies.
The latest attempt by Harold Ramis (who typically deserves the benefit of the doubt) to club us over the head with the old funny bone relies on that other Hollywood adage – concept is king. The thing is though without serfs to do the grunt work (or in this case some jokes) the kingdom swiftly crumbles. Such is the case with Year One, which adopts a leisurely preamble through the early chapters of recorded civilization designed to illustrate the absurdity of blind faith in age-old religious dogma the origins of which we can only presume to understand.
Our guides on this ironic tour of discovery come in the form of inept hunter Zed (Jack Black), and weedy gatherer Oh (Michael Cera) who are perennially ignored in their village by the objects of their affection, Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple) in favor of stronger, more capable men. After Zed eats the forbidden fruit of knowledge (which if anything makes him dumber) he is banished from the village, with Oh (whose hut he burned down) reluctantly in tow, and the pair set off to see what lies at the fabled edge of the world.
Compressing a few hundred thousand years of history into a few hundred square miles to facilitate the chitchat of cavemen and Roman, Ramis litters the road ahead with a string of biblical figures and revised historical incident. Cain and Abel are here, and Cain’s repeated attempts to murder his brother increasing brutal and “accidental” ways serves as one of the few genuinely funny sequences, but even that is dragged dangerously close to overkill (no pun intended). But see, here’s the problem; they don’t have any actual gags beyond the initial chuckle at hearing everyone talk like its the present day.
Hank Azaria also gets a couple of decent scenes as Abraham, with a fetish for penile surgery, who sums up the plight of the Jews quite nicely: “We’re a righteous people, but not very good at sports.” But he is gone no sooner than he shows up. Aside from a series of encounters with comic stars cameoing as characters from the good book, the only real drive the plot has concerns our duos efforts to rescue Maya and Eema, who it turns out have been captured and sold into slavery along with the rest of the village.
Jack Black does his typical routine (one so old it actually fits right in) and we’re duly treated to his full range; he does the robot thing, the tongue-flapping thing, and, that’s about it. Michael Cera’s polite, almost apologetic demeanor is funny as always, but he needs better material than this. Ramis script is just a little too preoccupied taking shots that at time it almost forgets to include our heroes. Beyond bickering with one another Zed and Oh are almost entirely passive. Stuff just happens around them and they are left to react with wearily hip one-liners or lazy pop-culture references (a market has a build-a-bear stall) that mostly fall flat. Similarly June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple might just as well be planks of wood given all they’re required to do.
By the time we reach the gates of Sodom Ramis’ script has referenced itself hoarse and runs scurrying for cover behind the gay jokes. So many gay jokes; Oh gets painted up like an effeminate gold statue boy, which is a bit gay. Vinnie Jones’ shouty Roman centurion threatens truncheon buggery, which is quite gay. Oliver Platt is mascara wearing high priest with a penchant for oil massages from teenage boys, which is really gay.
What’s most frustrating though is the mind-boggling level of comic laziness on display here, from the director on down. The idea that we still to this day structure so much of our society around a cockamamie collection of stores, the origins of which we can’t explain and the context of which we can’t explore, is so ridiculous half the work is already done for them. All it needs a little sharpening and focus (and a few hundred less gay jokes), but instead the lack of any discernable energy or enthusiasm make this one gospel we can well do without.
Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, June Diane Raphael
Director: Harold Ramis
Runtime: 97 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures