Monday, June 22, 2009
Year One, Harold Ramis’ new, inaccurately titled comedy, suggests the pairing of the neurotic, sensitive straight man and the fat, loud-mouthed schlub is as old as history itself. Perhaps that’s why Jack Black and Michael Cera are playing to types so rigid they might as well be cast in stone.
If you’ve watched the trailer for the film – and you doubtlessly have, as it was everywhere – then you already know the plot: Black’s Zed and Cera’s Oh (get it?) live in a village in what is certainly not the first year of human existence, a village apparently in the Garden of Eden even though it’s clearly not, and they pine for Maya (Olivia Wilde) and Eema (Juno Temple), respectively.
One day, Zed eats the forbidden fruit, and soon the two friends set out to explore the world as they pledge to return as heroes to win their loves. Along the way they stumble from one Bible story to another: they meet Cain (David Cross) as he slays his brother (Paul Rudd) before stumbling across Abraham (Hank Azaria) just before he sacrifices his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Eventually they make their way to Sodom, where the people all inexplicably speak with British accents.
After suffering through the lame hunter-gatherer jokes and the lazy Biblical references for 40 minutes, I confess I had high hopes for Sodom, which is a sad reflection of mindset at the time. Maybe in that den of unadulterated sin Ramis could at last unleash and really go for the blasphemous jugular, I thought. But no, it biggest payoff is a line like "You know what the best part of Sodom is? The sodomy," which might have been funny the hands of an anti-comic like Norm MacDonald. Delivered the uncomfortable David Cross – who has a look on his face the entire film that suggests he agreed to be in it as a fan of Ramis without reading the script – however, only accentuates its laziness.
Anyone going into this film expecting even a hint of the Ramis of old is in for a rude awakening, which is all the more bewildering given the wealth of comic talent both in front of and behind the camera. Ramis wrote the script with two Office scribes, and he collected a cast chock-full of comic heavyweights to back him up. Even if the leads are stuck in a rut, they're bankable comedy players, and David Cross is one of the finest comics of this generation.
With all that talent, how could he come up with this? Keep in mind: Harold Ramis is the person most responsible for the rise of chaos and revelry in comedy. He introduced raunch to the mainstream with his script for Animal House and his partnerships with Bill Murray represent, for many, the standard of cynical, skewed comedy. Judd Apatow in particular owes his career to Ramis, which might explain why he would finance such a terrible script. Then again, maybe it exerted the same strange influence over him as it apparently did the others.
It doesn’t help that Cera and Black are playing their old shtick: Cera is ironically detached, while Black doesn’t read his lines so much as boisterously proclaim them like a drunken William Shatner. Occasionally, he simply devolves into noises and funny faces. Why not just jangle keys for us, too? I miss the days when Jack Black had a handle on his manic energy, when he funneled it into an unassuming man who could suddenly burst into a rage over the most trivial of subjects. That character was funny in High Fidelity, even the over-the-top School of Rock. Now, he's just as sad self-parody, shouting these terrible lines in the hops that he'll make them amusing (he received his master's degree at the Dane Cook School of Comedy).
And as shoddy as the script is, Ramis’ direction fares no better: for some reason, he devotes most of the shots of this epically scaled comedy to close-ups, as if he was desperate to get a reaction, any reaction, out of the bored actors. He's never been the greatest director in the world, but he knew a thing or two about placement and how to set up for a joke. I saw short films made by high-schoolers at a school festival that had a better sense of direction that a man with 30 years of experience.
I take notes when I go to the theater, obviously so I don't have to remember every little thing when I get back home to write. But after about the halfway mark of this film, my scribbles devolved into such chaos as and entire page with the word "Why?" pasted all over it. I offered theories as to why and how Ramis could have fallen so far; the sanest of the bunch simply reads, "Have aliens killed Harold Ramis and worn his flesh to undermine the comedic bedrock of America to weaken us for eventual invasion? (possible)." Several pages I tore up on the way out, for fear that their content might be incriminating in some states. At no point did I manage to convince myself that a single moment was funny.
Year One is clearly shooting to be a piece of satirical blasphemy à la Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but it can’t even hit the simpler parody of History of the World Part I: it’s filled to the ceiling of its PG-13 rating with sodomy, circumcision and gay jokes – Olvier Platt’s turn as a high priest makes Ken Jeong’s mincing mobster from The Hangover look like a character from The Wire – yet Ramis is just wary enough of incurring any protests that he plays it frustratingly safe. You can't half-ass blasphemy: if you're going to mock the Bible's inconsistencies and absurdities, you better be ready to go all-out, not to turn them into sad, repetitive gags.
Yes, for all its gross-out gags, the only bold aspect of the entire film was the decision to include a blooper reel, as the thought of watching the crew having a good time with this after torturing us for 97 minutes is just insulting. At least the cast has the decency to look as bored in these candid moments as they do in the final product. It is truly the Paris Hilton sex tape of blooper reels.
In his now-legendary review for North, Roger Ebert listed director Rob Reiner's previous achievements as "incantations" against that infamous turkey. If that offered even a moment's consolation, I strongly suggest that anyone unfortunate enough to spend $10 on this piece of trash repeat "Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack" ad nauseam. Better yet, lock arms with your miserable brethren, in the hopes that, collectively, your tribal chanting can drown out the primitive nonsense of this tripe. Make no mistake: Year One is an abominable failure, and the nadir of Ramis’ career. He should be grateful that McG ruined the Terminator franchise just a few weeks ago, as that's the only thing keeping him from having the worst film of the year.