Film review: Year One

Year One (dir: Harold Ramis)

Zed and Oh are ostensibly members of a pre-civilization tribe of hunter/gatherers, but despite the caveman hair and animal skin fashions they are simply Jack Black and Michael Cera slipping their familiar schtick into a historical lampoon. They’re the self-aggrandizing blowhard and the sweetly shy man-child as the goof and the geek of prehistoric man, where tribal politics is curiously similar to playground pecking order.

Jack Black and Michael Cera: just hanging out in the land before time
Jack Black and Michael Cera: just hanging out in the land before time

The exact positioning of Year One on the historical timeline is a little vague. Or perhaps imaginary. When Zed takes a bite from a golden apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, they are banished from the bubble of Eden and left to wander the Holy Lands of Biblical lore: sharing a meal with Adam and family, traveling to the twin sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with Cain (David Cross) as their predatory travel guide, slipping in and out of slavery and servitude and prison as they try to free the women they love from captivity. Along the way they debate the meaning of life and the existence of God like a adolescent raunch comedy reworking of vaudeville philosophers Didi and Gogo in a Samuel Beckett rewrite of Mel Brooks’ History of the World by way of Teenage Caveman.

The first feature from Harold Ramis since The Ice Harvest is less hysterical than his signature comedies (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day) and more meandering than his best films. It could be the influence of producer Judd Apatow, or Ramis slipping back into his improve roots with the help of the Apatow comedy veterans in the cast, or just the inevitable tenor of a road movie comedy that sends a pair of introspective cavemen through a goof of Biblical epics in a script that feels more sketched than written.

Black’s Zed struts and double talks with oblivious (and unfounded) confidence in his own competence and Cera’s Oh stammers and whines and babbles when he should be taking a stand, or at least a chance. That’s pretty much what keeps the film going between underwhelming gags and comic situations. When did comedy writing become such a lost art, replaced by the improvisational byplay of talented but increasingly familiar players left to think up funny lines for an amusing situation? Oliver Platt makes it work as a mincing high priest with a hankering for Oh and a chest that could double as a bear skin rug and Hank Azaria is so crisp and snappy as Abraham, a man on a quest from God to circumcise his way through his people (“It’s going to be a very sleek look,” he assures Zed and Oh), that he reminds us that comedy used to be all about timing.

The rest is mildly amusing with jabs of wily inspiration and long stretches of obligatory adolescent sex and excrement joke. But for brief moments the questing and questioning of Zed and Oh become genuine and even touching efforts to find some kind of meaning in the mess (of the film and of life), and touchstones in a relationship between two oddballs who dare wonder aloud about what everyone else takes for granted. I wish there was more of that Ramis in the rest of the film.

Also published on the Seattle PostGlobe.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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