It’s back to basics for Jack Black – though come to think of it, I’m not sure he ever put the basics behind him.
The first thing he does here is throw a spear into the back of a fellow hunter, claim innocence, then blame the victim for “blocking his shot”. By now it’s clear that Year One has no pretensions towards historical accuracy (it’s about as accurate as Jack’s spear throwing). He may be a Neanderthal, intellectually speaking, but Black – or “Zed” – speaks with the half-smart self-centeredness of today’s aging slacker generation. Like virtually every Jack Black character since the dawn of time, Zed believes he’s destined for greatness, and he’s doing his best to squash the suspicion that life is passing him by.
He does know enough to feel the need to break the tribe’s one golden rule, and taste the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge… He thinks it will boost his brain power and finally put him on the right path. He’s nearly half right. The stunt gets him exiled, and he’s forced to fend for himself in the world, with only his rather puny and pathetic sidekick Oh (Michael Cera) for company.
Inexplicably, their wanderings take them forward several millennia, into the Old Testament. First they stumble across Cain (David Cross) killing his brother Abel (Paul Rudd), repeatedly. Then they wash up in the desert in the nick of time to save Isaac’s neck (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) from his zealous father’s knife – though his foreskin is another story.
Co-written and directed by comedy veteran Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters; Groundhog Day), Year One is little more than a series of juvenile skits dressed up in toga party glad rags. Sorely lacking the anarchic edge that Monty Python brought to The Life of Brian and the sheer chutzpah of Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, Year One is more akin to one of those old Bob Hope, Bing Crosby jaunts… Two guys bicker and banter in exotic climes, hopping from scrape to scrape without ever exhausting the bottom of the barrel. Inevitably Zed and Oh find themselves on the Road to Sodom, where Oliver Platt’s plummy High Priest orchestrates chest-rubbing orgies in the afternoon then presides over human sacrifices in the evening. It is in Sodom that the boys will prove their manhood, fnar-fnar.
Jack Black’s manic over-reacher and Cera’s shy mumbler compliment each other well enough, in theory, but at 39 Black is old enough to be his father. It’s a big age gap for a comedy duo and they never quite mesh or convince as bosom buddies, even if they’re fairly amusing separately.
Among the supporting cast, only Hank Azaria’s fundamentalist Abraham really seizes on the possibilities of the Holy Land setting; he and Platt deliver the goods, too many others just seem to have dropped by to hang out for a day or two on set. Typically, in this Apatow era of American comedy, the women get particularly short-shrift. They include Juno Temple (presumably cast on the strength of her name alone) as Oh’s designated lust-object, June Diane Raphael as Zed’s, and Olivia Wilde as, well, Zed’s bit of royal on the side.
Relentlessly – or if you prefer, shamelessly, juvenile, with fart jokes, shit jokes, and pee jokes vying with sex jokes and gay jokes for top spot – Year One is so ridiculously silly it’s hard to be offended by it. I giggled now and then, but if there were belly laughs they were exclusively concerned with Jack Black’s protruding stomach, and not particularly funny for the rest of us.
Bearing the tell-tale scars of slash-and-burn post-market testing editing – several early scenes just hit a brick wall – Year One isn’t an out and out disaster, just another feeble comedy that never finds its rhythm or builds up a head of steam. It was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to watch, but we’ll have to take that on trust – even the outtakes played alongside the end credits fall flat (-ulent).
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