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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"YEAR ONE"


Jack Black proves that he can indeed make an even worse movie than Nacho Libre. Case in point: Year One.
 
As a moviegoer, few things depress me more than seeing a lot of talented people flailing aimlessly on screen, trying desperately to bring life to material that just doesn’t work. I had that reaction today, while watching Year One. What a shame this movie is. It combines the talents of director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (from my favorite TV show “The Office”), and great comic actors like Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, and Hank Azaria. Rarely in the history of cinema have so many genuinely funny people come together to make a film that is so painfully unfunny to watch.

Black and Cera play Zed and Oh, two “gatherers” in a tribe of hunter/gatherers. Each pines unsuccessfully for a woman in the tribe – Zed for Maya (June Raphael) and Oh for Eema (Juno Temple) – and both are hampered by the fact that hunting is generally considered the more manly or attractive option. They are eventually banished from the tribe for general ineptitude, so they head off on their own, eventually to cross paths Zelig-style with a procession of Biblical figures such as Cain and Abel (Paul Rudd and Cross), Abraham (Azaria), and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When they discover that Maya and Eema have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, Zed and Oh decide to rescue them.

If that sounds like something less than a coherent plot, welcome to the first of several fatal problems with Year One. It’s kind of weird how the movie finds its inspiration in crappy, unworthy old comedies like Caveman and Wholly Moses, as well as the lesser Mel Brooks picture History of the World Part 1. The “humor” in those films wasn’t centered around story or characterization, but rather around a string of anachronisms as the actors spoke hip, modern, self-referential dialogue in the midst of an incongruent period setting. Black and Cera have been asked to play to their personas, with Black throwing off that obnoxious rock star vibe and Cera again doing his reticent doofus routine. Sure, the actors have perfected those personas, but watching them reenact the bits in Biblical times is not, in and of itself, particularly funny.

In some scenes, you can feel the actors grasping at straws. Consider the scene where Zed and Oh stumble across Cain and Abel. Cain bashes Abel to death with a rock, which leads to several interminable minutes of the surviving characters arguing over whether or not the act was intentional. There’s lots of comic stammering and back-tracking and fumbling for an excuse. However, none of it is funny, so it seems to go on and on. Many other moments in the story are exactly like that one. It’s almost as though we’re watching an improvised movie where no one is at the top of their ad-libbing game.

During times when it does feel scripted, Year One fares no better. Truth be told, it reminded me of the seemingly endless recent string of those annoying spoofs (Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, etc.), except instead of spoofing other films, it’s spoofing the Bible. The jokes here are every bit as crude and obvious. Most of them revolve around sex, poop, male genitals or any combination thereof. If you’re looking for actual wit or some kind of pointed satire, you’re looking in the wrong place. And that’s too bad, because I think the potential for smart-but-not-blasphemous comedy is here. Then again, smart comedy is a lot more difficult to do than to pen simplistic dialogue along the lines of “what happens within the confined walls of Sodom stays within the confined walls of Sodom.”

There is also a kind of nasty homophobic streak throughout, manifest most notably in the character of a high priest (Oliver Platt) who’s so flamboyant that he’d put Liberace to shame. The screenplay finds it hilarious to continually put Cera’s character in the orbit of people like him, or the village eunuch, or a guy who sexually abuses sheep. I wish Hollywood would realize that this is type of gay humor is 1.) offensive; and 2.) completely played out.

How did so many funny people create a movie that’s so fundamentally lazy? I don’t know, but I bet the tale of the making is more interesting than the final product itself. I could continue analyzing why Year One is laugh-free, but I honestly can’t bring myself to waste any more time thinking about something that sucks this badly. After the half-hour mark, I had to force myself to stop looking at my watch, because every time the impulse arose, I would see that only about five minutes had passed. It’s that kind of bad. No doubt everyone involved will go on to make great comedies in the future, and hopefully the unpleasant memories of Year One will fade away.

( out of four)


Year One is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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