Creative desperation leads to slapdash boredom in "Year One," a substandard Monty Python wannabe that hasn't a story so much as a series of bad, barely connected sketches. Watching these strained slapstick situations play out, one would never be able to guess that the film was made by Harold Ramis, the same director responsible for "National Lampoon's Vacation" and "Groundhog Day." His recent downward spiral has resulted in 2002's tedious "Analyze That
" and 2005's murky "The Ice Harvest
," but "Year One" crouches to a new low for the once-brilliant comedic filmmaker.
In the first year A.D., hunter Zed (Jack Black) and gatherer Oh (Michael Cera) are buddies and semi-outcasts in their tribe of fifty. When Zed feasts on the forbidden fruit, he is kicked out of the group and accidentally burns down half the camp in the process of leaving. With all of his possessions destroyed, Oh decides to fly the nest and join Zed on his journey to nowhere in particular. Their aimless destination changes, however, when they spot the beautiful gals they have crushes onMaya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple)being captured, sent to the unholy city of Sodom to work as slaves. Now it is up to Zed and Oh to rescue them, in the process running into brothers Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd), circumcision-obsessed Abraham (Hank Azaria) and son Jacob (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and any number of other ancient religious figures. Does God exist? Zed and Oh aren't sure, but would rather not be stoned to death to find out.
There is an early scene in "Year One" where a large python accosts Oh in the forest, wrapping itself around his head as the young man whimpers to Zed about what he should do. Cut to: Oh and Zed returning to their camp, no mention at all of how they got out of such a pickle. This will occur again and again during the film, a conflict or gag being set up only to switch to the next scene before a payoff has been provided. Meanwhile, the viewer sits quietly in detached bewilderment, wondering if they've come to see a comedy or a feature-length stream of unfunny clips. Even when comic set-pieces are underlined, they come off as muffled and juvenile, the sorts of things a five-year-old might laugh at, but few others (i.e. farting, urinating while hanging upside down, eating poop). A long-running bit involving the cross-dressing, make-up-wearing High Priest (Oliver Platt) hitting on Oh by forcing him to rub oil over his hairy body is icky and stereotypically intolerant, and the sight of a man trying to stone Oh and Zed by throwing his own testicle at them is something best left unseen.
Jack Black (2008's "Tropic Thunder
") and Michael Cera (2008's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
") make a great team, but screenwriters Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg leave them stranded. With Black the zany one and Cera continuing to master the gift of unforced deadpan, the actors are mostly asked to mosey around in front of the camera with animal hides on their backs for 97 minutes. The looks of mopey defeat on their faces are unmistakable, as if they already know they are involved in a dog of a movie. Oliver Platt (2007's "Martian Child
") embraces his effeminate High Priest, but the insensitive role is one that no one could play without looking like an ass. As Jacob, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (2008's "Role Models
") basically has transported his "Superbad
" part of McLovin two thousand years into the past. And as impetuous brothers Cain and Abel, David Cross (2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks
") violently bashes Paul Rudd (2009's "I Love You, Man
") over the head with a rock until he is bloody and very likely dead.
"Year One" is a dreary, low-rent trifle with shifty production values and no sense of energy or timing. The picture plays to presumed guffaws, but only receives uncomfortable silence (even in a packed theater), and neither the threadbare plot nor the one-note characters successfully involve or endear. The movie only earns one laughsentenced to death, Zed and Oh are charged with a long list of crimes ranging from thievery and treachery to puppetry, hyperbole and animal husbandryand it is the only inherent instance where pure wit and originality replaces the usual scatological and bathroom humor. Otherwise, there's nothing to see here. Comedies should leave viewers feeling good. This one leaves them annoyed, despondent, and in need of the good chuckle they didn't get.