This is funny: An early-history buffoon named Zed (Jack Black), trying to prove his skills as a hunter, notices the tracks of other humans and, proudly demonstrating his tracking ability, notes that “they stopped here to poop.” This is not: He picks up the shit and eats it. Such miscalculations are par for the course with Year One, a comedy that goes overboard in all the wrong ways and squanders a lot of would-be funny situations with ill-conceived, dumb humor, while exhibiting absolutely no sense of cohesion in the process.
I have an idea of how this movie was written: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg got high and made themselves laugh imagining corny situations in Biblical times, and then wrote these situations out as scenes of a film, loosely stitching them together with a clichéd rescue-the-maidens plot device. Like so many Saturday Night Live sketches of the past decade, most of these scenes have the distinct feel of something that probably sounded funny in its conception, but just doesn’t play up to its potential as written. Come to think of it, maybe I just happened upon some insight into the SNL writing process, too.
In a formula that is sure to make a sub-100 minute movie feel like it’s 3 hours long, Year One‘s first act is its funniest. Zed the hunter bumbles his way around his tribe’s village, and eventually gets banished for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. His friend Oh (Michael Cera), the gatherer, leaves the village with him as they back their way into their quest. Most of the early expository scenes (if you can call them that) are most readily characterized by the laziness of their production: after setting up a few relatively funny scenarios, the film is quick to drop them without anything resembling resolution, only to move on to the next incompletely-conceived scenario.
Oh, for instance, is attacked by a boa constrictor, which slowly wraps itself around him while Michael Cera spouts pithy Michael Cera dialogue. We then abruptly cut to the next scene to find him back in the tribe’s village, unharmed, with no explanation of how he was able to escape and no knowledge of what became of the snake. (This being a movie set in Biblical times, I thought it reasonable to expect that this snake—which appears beside the tree with its forbidden fruit—was a well-known character, but if that was the case it’s never clarified. The snake also is denied any dialogue with which to explain itself.)
In another scene, a panther leaps out of a tree and attacks Oh (this time he doesn’t even have a chance to spout pithy Michael Cera dialogue). We immediately cut again to the next scene, and while at least this time he has some scratches on his legs, proving that the filmmakers didn’t simply forget about the preceding encounter, again there is no mention of how he escaped.
As they go about their quest to rescue their love interests (Juno Temple and June Diane Raphael) from slavery, Zed and Oh meet several Biblical characters, all played by quality actors whose cameos provide most of the comedic high points of the film: Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd), Abraham and Isaac (Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), even briefly Adam and Eve (Ramis and Rhoda Grffis). There are further cameos by Bill Hader as a pissed-off shaman, Kyle Gass as a eunuch, and… well, the list goes on and on. Like most of the film’s individual scenes themselves, these characters are generally funny at first sight, but then, quickly realizing they don’t have much to do, their charm wears off along with their comedic value. The possible exception is David Cross, who as I’ve mentioned before is one of my favorite comedians. He pops up repeatedly throughout the movie, usually with a funny quip, always overacting just enough to try to eek out more laughs than are actually there. He also gets the best—if not the most obvious—line of the movie: “You wanna know the best thing about Sodom? It’s the sodomy!” Now that’s funny.
It’s almost tempting to view this as a time travel movie. Black, Cera, and Cross behave exactly as they do in every other movie they’ve been in (most of which take place about 2000 years later than this one), while the rest of the characters around them vaguely posture as if they’re actually from Biblical times. I found myself wondering if the straight-forward approach wouldn’t have been a better one to take, in fact. While Year One does go for a bit of a fish-out-of-water feel at times, though, it’s certainly no Army of Darkness in that department.
There is one good running gag that comes from the Biblical setting, involving repeated use of the phrase “to lay with” and its variants as a euphemism for sex. It’s a joke that never gets old no matter how many times it’s used throughout the film. Unfortunately it’s the only joke for which this can be said.
Not that this movie is going for any semblance of historical accuracy, but the mish-mash style of its storytelling only adds to the feeling that it’s little more than a disjointed collection of uncompleted sketch ideas. Even its very title is suspect: I’m no theology expert or anything, but I’m pretty sure that the story of Abraham choosing his imaginary friend over his son comes significantly prior to the whole phantom semen thing. (So much earlier, it might even come from a different book altogether… but I’m no expert.) Never mind that, though—y’know what else is funny? Circumcision!