The idea of prehistoric comedy has had its ups and downs over the years. One can rightfully extol the virtues of the (unwittingly) funny One Million Years B.C. while staring at their childhood bedroom poster of Raquel Welch in an animal skin bikini. One can also laugh out loud at last year's drop dead inane take on the era, 10,000 B.C.. One can while away the hours with remembrances of Hanna-Barbara's The Flintstones and the way Fred never learns how to get back in the house after the cat throws him out. One can also wonder just what Ringo and everyone were smoking when they made the disastrously panned (but actually kinda fun) Caveman. One can also be surprisingly awed by the criminally underrated Quest for Fire, complete with lobby handouts deciphering the "dialect" spoken in the film.
One also must wonder what this genre would be like if it were to be placed smack dab in the middle of the manchild Judd Apatow universe now so snarkily entrenched in our mainstream movie culture. Okay, maybe no one outside of the filmmakers were ever actually wondering such a thing, but wondering or not, like it or not, ready or not, here it is. Yet this is more than just a caveman comedy in Judd Apatow clothing. Probably more in tune with films such as Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I and/or Monty Python's Life of Brian (though nowhere near them in quality of product), Year One is Biblical comedy in Judd Apatow clothing. Either way one looks at it, the outcome can not be an optimistic one for anyone involved - save those who are under the impression that Judd Apatow movies are something to be excited about and not just immature ramblings of an overgrown adolescent with only a few rare pockets of mildly self-loathing humorous material included.
Because of this, director Harold Ramis, the comedian/director who brought us Caddyshack, Groundhog Day and the original Vacation, seems to be totally out of his element here. In other words Year One seems much more Apatow and much less Ramis. Now Ramis may not be in the same league as comic geniuses such as Lubitsch, Sturges, Wilder or even Woody Allen, but his films, his earlier ones especially, are well-structured and well-timed comedies. We have fun watching them. From Bill Murray waking up over and over and over again to Sonny & Cher to Chevy Chase punching a plastic moose in the snoot, we have fun watching them. His films should be (and have been) better than what we are given here. Ramis is trying his hand at highbrow comedy while the Judd Apatow machinery chugs along dropping shit bombs and gay jokes along the tracks for everyone to step in and lie down on.
Year One stars cinematic odd couple Jack Black and Michael Cera as Zed and Oh, a pair of loser cavemen – or more appropriately, loser hill people – who are excommunicated from their clan for, well...for Jack Black being Jack Black. After several comically failed attempts at wooing their prospective mates, eating from the forbidden fruit and carelessly setting the village afire (these last two being all Jack Black of course), these two misfits are forced to make their way in the big bad outside world. They are forced to go out into the unknown world that lies just beyond the mountains first considered to be the edge of that same said world, with only their wits to guide them. This can't end well. For us or for them.
In this newly found world, Zed and Oh make their way through a series of encounters with a crassness not to be underestimated - or unexpected. The caveman movie now becomes a road picture of sorts. Sort of Hope & Crosby on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah. On the road they come across a giddily psychopathic Cain (David Cross) and his ill-fated brother Abel (Paul Rudd) and a circumcision-giddy Abraham (Hank Azaria) and his almost ill-fated son Isaac (McLovin’ himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Both Azaria and Cross are fun to watch in their respective roles, but the obvious script plotzing gets tiresome after awhile. We also get an unnecessarily flatulent Seth (Gabriel Sunday), Zed's unrequited attempt at seducing an obviously uninterested Lilith (All My Children's Eden Riegel lisping that she likes girls), the director himself appropriately in the Adam role and a Roman general (Vinnie Jones) who seems to be the poor man's version of Russell Crowe unleashing Hell.
After these rather lackluster Old Testament vignettes, Zed and Oh must then hatch a plan to rescue their respective love interests (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple) who have been taken as slave girls by the Romans. In search of their prospective rescuees, the two hapless hill people finally arrive in what will be the final act showpiece, the infamous Sodom. Once our intrepid travelers make it inside the walls of Sodom, Year One goes from road movie to frat party. From dime store Hope/Crosby to something out of Fellini's Satyricon. What we also get is the temporary saving grace of Oliver Platt. Playing a beastly, prancing fancy boy high priest Sodomite who is somewhere between Mighty Joe Young and South Park's Big Gay Al, Platt is cheaply hilarious in a role that will surely rile the hind feathers of the Gay & Lesbian community - and probably rightly so. Again, even in its small victories, Year One is more Apatow than Ramis.
Black’s Zed is a pompous hairy monkey-man hooting obnoxiously into the wind while Cera's Oh is a whimsical smart alec who hides behind an aloof dryness of quips. Basically this is Cera and Black, playing Cera and Black for about the umpteenth time each, but when combined, the two disparate comedians actually make for a pretty good comedy team, reminiscent of perhaps Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (more apt than the aforementioned Hope/Crosby), but unfortunately they are never given the material here to show off their unique talents, solo or duo. While director Ramis all but drops the ball on this one, we are left with a screenplay that goes for the lowest common denominator of comedy. A screenplay just aching to be called so easy a caveman could write it. Again, more Apatow than Ramis.
Historical accuracy aside (one would be surprised, pissed off even, to find such a thing in such a movie) and forgoing any questions on the circumstances of a tribe of mountain people who did not even know of the existence of the outside world procuring eyeliner and hydrogen peroxide, Year One is not totally devoid of merit. There are a few individual moments that shine through the primordial muck of fart, feces and penis jokes - and inevitable sodomy jokes – but most of these moments are proverbially too few and much too far between to act as consistently funny entertainment. Again, more Apatow than Ramis for sure. Even the guilty pleasures of watching Jack Black do his overgrown stoner schtick (his failed attempt at escaping his being shackled to the dungeon walls is particularly belly-bursting for no other reason than it is Jack Black doing it) and Michael Cera his whimpering acerbic asides (though these surely work much better in a contemporary setting) and Oliver Platt his emblazoned faux gravitas (gay-bashing characterization or not) cannot save this otherwise prattling, oafish, uncivilized attempt at revamping either History of the World: Part I and/or Life of Brian – both far superior films.
The best I can say – and it is probably more than this film deserves - is what I added as my status update on my Facebook page as soon as I left the screening: I wasn’t totally put off by Year One. Faint praise indeed, if it is praise at all (hint: it's not) but it is the best I can muster under the circumstances. A fellow critic quipped that apparently comedy wasn't invented until year two. I could not have said it better myself. In fact I wish I had said that. Next time (in Year Two perhaps) let's hope for more Ramis and less, much less, Apatow. [06/18/09]