I love reading film reviews, thus my urge to write them. Unless it's a movie I'll never see, I usually wait on reading critiques until after my viewing, to keep my opinion fresh and whatnot. (Only other exception: I read all reviews on this website when they're posted. Bling.) But when I saw the terrible reviews that Year One was getting, I had to find out why, as many different times as possible. What a disappointment to find out one of my more anticipated movies, one with a cast to beat the proverbial band, was a misguided elementary-grade take on religious and class beliefs. So then I watched the movie last night, and I'll be damned if my lowered expectations (and a bit of the Leaf of Knowledge) didn't make Year One undoubtedly more enjoyable than if I'd seen it in theaters as intended. If this had been a National Lampoon movie, it would have gotten further unwarranted praise. Go figure.
The movie revels in its jokey lines. If this were a "line said to be funny" contest, it would beat almost any other movie hands down. That these jokes connect inherently formless and flow-deprived scenes is where it fails. Harold Ramis, I know that Jack Black and Michael Cera are not Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, and that you're not Tom Stoppard. But this should have been something closer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead than Hot Shots, though really, if you think about it as a Zucker-Zucker-Abrams picture, or maybe a high school production, it's kind of solid. But why should we sort of lower our expectations for the smartest Ghostbuster?
I'm going to blow through this plot without any opinions. Hunter-gatherers Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) are ostracized from their destroyed land after forbidden-fruit eating Zed destroys it. They vie for Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), who don't so much care for them, especially when they're sold off with the rest of the village as slaves to the Roman-ish Sargon (Vinnie Jones), who answers to the King (Xander Berkeley). The male duo witness Cain (David Cross) murder Abel (Paul Rudd), and then join him for a while, are then separated, and then they reconnect later, again and again. Same goes for the girls. Along the way, they meet different "real" Bible characters and stereotyped historical figures. Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are Abraham and Isaac. Oliver Platt is a fetishist High Priest, a very hairy High Priest. Zed and Oh get in lots of trouble and get out due to circumstance and Zed's conviction that he is God-sent to save things. There are virgin burnings, and the girls eventually fall prey to it, and real heroics show through Zed and Oh. The time periods clash, of course, and Jack Black nibbles on a fake turd at one point.
Seems like a good time to start an opinionated paragraph. The fact that turd-eating, used as a tracking method, is more than insinuated to is part of the problem here. I think someone sniffing pee out of dirt is, in immediate theory, funnier than seeing a poo joke for the billionth time in a comedy. Even ones aimed for a higher brow than the pubic one. And there is a big pee joke. There's also about 15 straight seconds dedicated to on-screen farting. So what, that's only about 40 seconds of completely juvenile humor, but if the movie absolutely had to have those 40 seconds in it, I'd have rathered more thank yous at the end of the credits. Maybe it's because it was PG-13, and if it were a hard R, some...other joke would have happened. Defecation humor aside, there are many scenes that start funny, but go on no less than five seconds too long. It's because the movie is a bunch of skits, in that a lot of ideas were jammed into a brainstorming bubble grid and sense was made out of it, rather than writing scenes to follow one another with anything guiding it other than a three-act formula of conflict and resolution. This sounds like militant hate, I know, but Ramis apparently spent a long time forming the story, which is like water. You can freeze it so it looks solid, but under a harsh enough light, it's puddles. Bam, more metaphor than Year One.
So what's good about the movie? Quite a bit. No one performs badly, though some over-perform. I fucking hetero-love David Cross, but the story shouldn't have had that much to do with him. Harold Ramis should have just written a Cain movie that sometimes dealt with Zed and Oh. He robbed every line he spoke. Black and Cera don't even need to strain for their performances. Zed is an overbearing oaf with a knack for bullshit, and Cera is a confidence-lacking twerp used for his oil-massaging hands and gold-painted body. These aren't bad criticisms, but a better movie wouldn't have written so close to actor personalities, even though I know a shitload of it was improvised. Particular high guest-spot moments are Azaria and Platt. Anybody else wish the second season of Huff would come out on DVD? Both men run with their roles, gloriously riding the hemlines of camp. Kyle Gass as an open-minded eunuch is great. Small bits from Matt Besser, Bill Hader, and Paul Scheer are great for sketch-show fans. Super Bowl ring-wearing Matthew Willig as the ogreish Marlak is enjoyable, and you can't deny he was born for such a costume. The female roles for Raphael and Temple are standard, but their characters should have had more room to grow, instead of just being objects of lust and rescue. Harold Ramis makes a stoic Adam.
The set and costume designs are beyond top notch, particularly Sodom. Just huge, and man I would love to play some hide and seek in that shit. Ramis directed a good-looking movie. It's not exciting or anything, but he doesn't squash funny lines. The themes are glossed over, and there isn't really much to make you think beyond the dialogue going on screen. The time periods float, but make for amusing cultural anachronisms. When Cain shows Zed and Oh the "wheel," they are astounded, and treat a oxen-cart chase like a roller coaster ride, down to throwing up after the under-5mph trip. Silly, but one of the more clever bits. Ho hum. I really thought I would have more to say about this thing, but when the main highlights are the vocal gaffs and scenery, it can't be shared so easily in this medium. How sad when the only feeling you have about watching something is an "all-around lack of regret."
The disc, luckily, is up to the standard of most comedies worth a damn, and it has like 15 trailers, no fooling! There's a commentary by Ramis, Black, and Cera that is a lot of laughing and brief mentions of scenes and the many people involved in the film. Not that great, all in all. There are two deleted scenes that are scenes from the movie with slightly changed tones or references. They're good enough. There are 10 "extended and alternate" scenes that are all good for their subtle line changes. There's a line-o-rama that has some smirk-inducing riffs. There's a gag reel that...you guessed it, is amusing. "Year One: The Journey Begins" nails what it looks like to have fun making a movie. Except for slight problems with weather, everyone was jovial and made this feature as funny as anything else on the disc. The focus on cast and set brought up more of my sense of jaded appreciation, seeing them look like they were making a movie that would have blown my funny bone. It's rewatchable for the lines, but it'll take me a while.