There have always been two contradictory versions of Harold Ramis, director. One creates classic comedies like Caddyshack, Vacation, and Groundhog Day. The other delivers glorified junk, feeble funny business like Club Paradise, Multiplicity, and the Analyze This/That films. Granted, the SCTV alum can only be as effective as the material he's working with, but someone with his sense of humor should be a better judge of same. So it comes as some surprise that his latest big screen effort, Year One, is so oddly uneven. On the one hand, it's a quasi-clever spoof of the big budget Biblical epic. Yet within such grand intentions, very little actual humor can be found.
When he accidentally burns down part of their village, Zed (Jack Black) is banished to the "edge of the world" -- aka the unexplored region just beyond the mountains. Taking his best friend Oh (Michael Cera) with him, the duo travel from one fabled era to another. First they meet Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd). Then it's an interaction with Abraham (Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When they arrive in Sodom, they instantly run afoul of a crazed military man (Vinnie Jones) and a fey high priest (Oliver Platt). They also discover several members of their tribe who have now been taken slaves, including the guys' wannabe girlfriends Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple). It is up to Zed, who believes he is God's "chosen one," to save the day. Article continues below
Year One is the perfect "one notch below" film. It's likeable instead of laugh-out-loud, genial while genuinely missing many sound satiric opportunities. Relying on the kind of cynical, irreverent bent that made Land of the Lost such a chore, Ramis realizes early on that a nimble-footed approach to this material won't be enough. Today's audiences don't necessarily cotton to deadpan one-liners and cheeky asides. So every 20 minutes or so, he injects the kind of schoolyard scatology that viewers seem to crave. That's right, every bodily function, from urine to vomit and all forms of fecal explusion are presented for quick giggle inducement, reminding us in the crudest fashion possible that what we are witnessing is supposed to be knee-slapping.
As with any other slightly-above-average effort, Year One also wastes a lot of time. There are tired subplots that don't deliver on their setup. For example, Zed and Oh are constantly tormented by a beefy macho member of the tribe named Marlak. We anticipate some manner of stand-off where a newly invigorated team demands some kind of pratfall payback, but it never arrives. Similarly, our heroes' horndog dilemma over babes Maya and Eema is resolved inorganically and awkwardly. One moment, they hate them. The next, itís all cow eyes and kisses. As the centers in this uneven comedy storm, Black and Cera are excellent. They're not quite a classic duo -- our Superbad star is definitely in a supporting mode here -- but there is a chemistry and excellent repartee between the two.
Ramis also takes a few swipes at religion, jabs that frequently remind the viewer of a much funnier farce, Monty Python's Life of Brian. Azaria's Abraham goes ga-ga for foreskin, while Cross' Cain makes a mockery of the entire marked murderer parable. Individuality and humanism is preached, while destiny is given more play than prayer. Still, for all its attempted chutzpah, Year One plays it safe. Black is his own lovable slob self, and Cera is a mere mousier version of his already low-key persona. In fact, one imagines this movie playing better on home video where newfound fans can obsess over jokes and memorize favorite lines. Ramis' best may be behind him, but luckily, Year One is not one of his worst.