How can Harold Ramis, the man who gave us the great comedies of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, bring us such flat and lifeless material as Year One? Although not completely devoid of the odd laugh here and there (whether they're an accident or not), this is uninspired, lazy comedy filmmaking that makes a waste of its bucket loads of comedic acting talent.
Year One follows two lazy hunter-gatherers Zed and Oh (Jack Black and Michael Cera, respectively), who one day are banished from their tribe and primitive village, and subsequently they set out on an adventure and exploration of the ancient world. Along the way they they meet with various Biblical entities, including Cain and Abel, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Year One doesn't really seem to know what type of comedy it is; is it a raunchy comedy satirising the Bible, or a kid-friendly slapstick adventure? It awkwardly tries to be both, when it really should have picked one or the other. The result is a film that's unsuitable for the kids (I dread the parents who have to explain a lot of the sexual innuendos), but plays it too safe for most the adults to get much a kick out of it.
The lead role seems built for Black, considering he goes all out as far as being the zany, silly and lovable guy who plays the unlikeliest of heroes (a cliché the film goes back to time and time again). But it's nothing new, nothing different, nothing unique, but what else is to be expected in a broadly marketed and appealing comedy like this? Cera is just his usual self – think Paulie Bleeker turning up as in a hunter-gatherer costume at Juno's birthday party. He and Black have some good comedic chemistry but it's in vain when (for the most part) the material falls flat.
The problem with the jokes is that they're too broad and too simple that they just don't hit the right notes. I'm surprised Ramis (and co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, both of the U.S. version of The Office) actually thought this stuff was funny, let alone passed it with personal approval through the scripting stage. The attempts at satire on religion, and more specifically the Bible, are lost when it reverts back to silly slapstick or racy innuendos. The ingredients are all there for a good, solid comedy, but the chef with the name tag that read Ramis doesn't seem to know what to do with them.
Even the plethora of comedy-actor cameos can't even save Year One. I can't believe the amount of normally funny folk was brought together in one place here, and find it even harder to believe it was even possible to misuse them so drastically. Paul Rudd and David Cross (both hilarious guys in almost everything else) play brothers Cain and Abel (you may have heard of them), and a scene of them squabbling in a field, for example, feels watered down for the kiddies – if this were Judd Apatow's movie (he produces but doesn't write or direct), he'd really have them go at it. Superbad's McLovin, aka Christopher Mintz-Plasse, seems just to be in there because of his famous geek role, and a normally brilliant Oliver Platt is just embarrassing, providing a gross-out comedy moment involving chest hair and oil that's beyond unfunny. Even a playing-it-straight-Vinnie Jones is utterly wasted here.
For the kids in the audience there's the obligatory fart and poop jokes (the latter sees Black shockingly chewing on what turns out to be bear poop – can someone explain to me why that's funny?), and the slapstick violence (one area where the film manages to stave off questions of explicitness for the age rating). For the adults there's some moments of well timed punchlines, the occasional smart commentary on religious traditions (one of the film's highlights is a scene where they debate the point of having your foreskin removed), and the general "spot the comedy actor" routine. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Year One shares with Night at the Museum 2 the description of "meh" at so many points, but both have their absolute highlights coming from Hank Azaria's appearances. Unfortunately, as he was during his night at the Smithsonian Museum, Azaria's screen time is disappointingly short-lived here.
Year One manages to miss the rubbish tip as it definitely has it's moments. But for the most part it makes you wonder just what Ramis and co. were thinking of when they made this, and where they'd forgotten their funny bones. A sense of identity crisis on the film's part alienates both the kids and the adult audience whenever it tries to merge it's slapstick and raunchy humour. It starts off riding on the hope that the audience just seeing famous Biblical passages come to comedic life will be enough to make them laugh, but it doesn't. And when the film realizes it actually needs something resembling a plot, it falls into the clichéd "save the people" pitfall.
But ultimately it's just not funny enough to sustain it's 90-plus minute runtime – a 20-minute sketch may have been the best form for this to have taken. As it is, Year One is a pretty limp excuse for feature film comedy, and with the talented cast brought together, that really shouldn't have been the case.