Year One

Michael Cera and Jack Black prepare to get stoned; David Cross (front) is their connection.

Michael Cera and Jack Black prepare to get stoned; David Cross (front) is their connection.

(Columbia) Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, June Raphael, Horatio Sanz, Kyle Gass, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, Matthew J. Willig, Xander Berkeley. Directed by Harold Ramis.

In the beginning, there was comedy. God saw that it was good, said it was good and it was good. But then came Year One and everything changed.

Zed (Black) is a hunter in a small village where the only career options are hunting and gathering. He sucks at both. He is more apt to sling his spear into a fellow hunter as he is into their prey. He has become the butt of jokes for his village, particularly alpha male hunter Marlak (Willig). His chances at winning his dream girl Maya (Raphael) are slim at best.

Oh (Cera) is a gatherer. Passive to the point of inertness, Oh is Zed’s closest – make that only – friend. He is infatuated with Eema (Temple), Zed’s promiscuous sister but is far too shy and awkward to make any realistic play. Like Zed, he is an object of scorn for the village.

One day Zed gets fed up and walks with Oh far beyond where the villagers are normally allowed to walk, all the way to the Forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and EvilTM. Oh pleads with him not to eat the fruit of the tree, but Zed, full of bluster and frustration over his lot in life, takes a healthy bite and proclaims that the fruit tastes “knowledgier.”

Unfortunately for the two knuckleheads, the village has employed a stooge to monitor the tree, and they are brought before the village in disgrace, having committed the one cardinal sin that is forbidden to the entire tribe. Incompetence had been one matter but this was completely another and the tribe’s shaman (Hader) informs Zed with some regret that he must leave. Zed calls on members of his tribe to join him in forming a new village but only Oh gets to leave, and he only goes because Zed accidentally burns his hut to the ground.

On their way beyond the horizons of their village, Zed and Oh encounter two brothers in a nearby field – Cain (Cross) and Abel (an uncredited Rudd). The hunter-gatherers manage to instigate a fraternal brawl between the two, and – for those not aware of the Biblical story – Cain murders Abel in a fit of what can only be called psychotic pique.

After fleeing Cain’s village, with the murderous Cain in tow, Cain sells the two hunter-gatherers into slavery and pockets the cash. They are surprised to find the rest of their village in bondage – the fire Zed had set apparently attracting the notice of slave traders. Zed and Oh manage to escape and when the caravan is attacked by ruthless slave traders from Sodom commanded by the unprincipled Sargon (Jones) – who contrary to first glance is not a laundry detergent – and resolve to rescue them.

On the way to Sodom they meet Abraham (Azaria) in the midst of sacrificing Isaac (Mintz-Plasse) and he points them on the way to the city of wickedness although not without a generous offer of circumcision before they leave which they regretfully decline. Then it’s on to Sodom, ruled by a bloodthirsty king (Berkeley), a truly hairy high priest (Platt) and a comely princess (Wilde). How in a city of wickedness will such innocents ever prevail?

Director Ramis is an extremely funny man (you may remember him as Egon in Ghostbusters) and has directed some very funny movies (including Caddyshack and Groundhog Day) but this doesn’t hold up to his better works, alas. Think of it as a spoof of biblical epics as conceived by Judd Apatow and you have an idea of the direction they wanted to go in, but the idea was much funnier in conception than in execution.

That’s too bad, because this is an extremely talented cast who has distinguished themselves in better movies than this. I’ve been a big Jack Black fan since I first saw him in High Fidelity but he has lost much of the freshness that made him so likable and is reduced to self-parodying shtick here. He seems to be sinking into a morass of his over-the-top Tenacious D character; I’ve always found his more restrained performances, as in The Holiday and Shallow Hal to be his more likable roles.

Michael Cera has almost no chemistry with Black. The contrast between his effeminate timidness and Black’s balls-to-the-wall bravado is a bit too wide a gulf to sometimes understand why they hang around each other, except that nobody else will. Cameo performances by a variety of talented comic actors go largely wasted. David Cross makes the most of his time as the treacherous Cain and chews scenery with great gusto – he alone of all the actors in the movie seems to be having a good time.

There are some funny moments here, but there is a sense that you’ve seen this all before. In many ways this feels like the filmmakers are trying way too hard to be like Apatow instead of making a movie in their own voice. Given the success of the Apatow comedies, its understandable why they’d try so hard to mimic the style but in the end it feels forced and contrived. I left the theater feeling like someone who takes a bite of a gigantic, juicy hamburger expecting it to satisfy their appetite; instead, it winds up being mostly bun and lettuce.

WHY RENT THIS: To be fair, there are a few funny moments and David Cross seems to genuinely be having fun. If you liked Jack Black in Tenacious D, you get a whole lot of that here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much of the humor simply doesn’t work and the filmmakers try too hard to recreate what works for Judd Apatow. A lot of the movie feels forced, like sketch writers trying to string a bunch of vignettes together into a 90 minute film.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing overt here, but a very large amount of sexual innuendo. Those who are devout Christians may be put off by some of the biblical parody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ramis has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as Adam early on in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An audio commentary track with Ramis, Cera and Black that’s funnier than the finished film.


TOMORROW: Cadillac Records