Year One is the newest movie directed by Harold Ramis, who comedy lovers (and, hell, just about anyone) probably know as the director of Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, Bedazzled, Analyze That and under-watched character film, The Ice Harvest. Ramis isn’t too shabby at coming up with compelling comedy scripts either, with writing credits on Animal House, Stripes, and Analyze This, among other things.
Things that involve “busting” and ghosts for one. Yeah, Harold Ramis, AKA Egon Spengler wrote Year One with two of the creators of NBC’s The Office, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eiesenberg. This could be important to you, because these are the guys who are currently holed up in some Los Angeles room-without-windows pounding out the script that will hopefully see The Ghostbusters return to the big screen, pending Columbia and Sony’s approval of the script and signing of the check that will see the original four ‘Busters, channeling their much younger selves.
I went into Year One with hope that I might see some glimmers of genius that would make me feel better than I currently do at the prospect of a Ghostbusters III. After seeing Jack Black eat bear poop, Michael Cera pee on his face and Oliver Platt insist that being hairy and gay is somehow funny in its own right, I started making excuses. Excuses like: “Well, Ghostbusters hinges on plot and character while Year One doesn’t,” and “Maybe they’re just getting all their fart jokes out of their system,” even: “Maybe Harold Ramis was really against this scene, but they put it in anyway.”
I spent the last 20 minutes of Year One trying to figure out where the film lost me, but I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re getting pissed off at my allusions, I’ll simplify it for you: When you go to the beach or the pool, does your towel have a cartoon character on it? If so, go ahead and see Year One, it’s probably aimed right at you. If you were never alive at the same time as Kurt Cobain, bring your bros to the theater, get someone older to score you some booze and have a freakin’ blast.
On the flip side, if you’re a big fan of The Life Of Brian and History of the World: Part I, you’ve seen this premise before. If you like both of those movies and CAN’T STAND the Jack Black or the Michael Cera schtick, then this movie is going actively piss you off.
Jack Black plays Zed, who eats the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and is cast out of his tribe. Micheal Cera plays Oh, who is relegated to the sidekick role, and leaves the tribe because Jack Black burned his hut down. Whenever I refer to these characters again, I’m going to use the actor’s names, because the characters and plot don’t matter, and I felt like I was watching Jack Black and Michael Cera hang out rather than playing characters. This is going to be what alienates audiences from this movie, because Jack Black does his best Jack Black all the way through and Michael Cera does his best Michael Cera.
Which is fine, if you know that’s what you’re going to see.
I’m a fan of Michael Cera’s comedic timing, his mumbled punch lines and self-conscious sincerity still work for me. I don’t always get Jack Black’s near-Vaudevillian craziness, but on occasion it fits. The important thing is that I don’t actively avoid these actors. The poster for the film perfectly sums it up: Jack Black, Michael Cera as cavemen.
Good. By now you should know if this movie is aimed at you.
I know that there are multiple cameos and characters by Judd Apatow-friendly actors you probably like or trust, such as Paul Rudd, David Cross, and Bill Hader, but believe me it doesn’t matter. It’s like each actor was given a card with a single, broad joke written on it and told to improvise using that card in every scene. David Cross’ Cain is always a selfish asshole, Paul Rudd’s Abel exists only to get bludgeoned to death in a physical comedy piece and Bill Hader is virtually unrecognizable in black makeup. When Hank Azaria’s one-note, foreskin-obsessed Abraham returns for the climatic sequence, my head was in my hands when they didn’t give him a joke.
Year One could have been called The First Road Trip and might have benefited from some people who thought it was a Road Trip prequel and got suckered into buying a ticket. Ramis has said in multiple interviews that if you condense the timeline of the book of Genesis, it becomes a road trip film. Ramis said it, so I know that’s the structure he thinks he’s following, but when I walked out of the theater, I honestly felt like I had spent an hour-and-a-half watching HULU and Funny Or Die clips.
The unifying plot point is Jack Black’s feeling that he was chosen by God and must save his sister and the slave girl he’s in love with, both have been moved to Sodom, which was chosen over Gomorrah, because you can’t make as many ass-sex jokes over yonder. Otherwise, the movie seems to actively avoid having a linear plot, becoming a series of sketches.
For example, very early on in the film we TWICE cut away from a scene where Michael Cera should logically be dead. Under the tree of knowledge the obligatory snake appears, begins to constrict Michael Cera, then…we cut to the next scene.
Double-you, tee, eff, Ramis.
A few scenes later, a mountain lion is in a tree, spots Cera and LEAPS…
…we cut to the next scene.
All of this would be fine if there was something funny about it, and I have to blame the script because I know these comedic actors and if they got to improv something funny, they would. Take Gabriel Sunday, an actor I highly praised in his debut indie, My Suicide. Here, he’s given a retarded character to play, because it’s that kind of movie. He has one scene with Michael Cera, a scene where I was ready for some damn comedy, and it’s 95% fart noises. Then he asks Michael Cera: “You wanna hear a story?,” and I think: “Ah yes, dry and subtle humor, here we come.”
…we cut to the next scene.
There are a few jokes that actually made me laugh. Michael Cera has a very charming habit of muttering a punchline right as the scene ends. I’d say this might be a good example that there was – at one point – good things in the script, but then I noticed that the three Cera interjections I laughed at (example: “Yes We Can!”) were ADR work done when Cera’s mouth isn’t on screen.
Year One plays like a loosely-assembled group of outtakes from a really funny film that uses dry humor to discuss the origins of religion, why we should question the power that rules us and the role of sex in modern day society, but what we get are fart, poop and sodomy jokes. I want to see the missing film. When Jack Black delivers his climactic speech, I heard his words and they resonated, it’s just too bad they weren’t funny and didn’t really apply to anything that had happened in the previous 80 minutes.
Let’s hope that I’m not too far off and Year One ends up being all the rejected jokes for a new Ghostbusters script, because if it’s a sign that Harold Ramis has gone off the deep end, we might see Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman dealing with the terrors of elderly fecal incontinence, which he can’t control when excited.
And that would be shitty in so many ways beyond the obvious.