If anything, watching Year One is like playing a great big game of What Could Have Been. The most obvious version of the game is to take a look at the cast and the writing talent and wonder where all of it went – like a mega-budget movie that has terrible FX. But the large amount of talent is probably the biggest downfall for the movie because, despite a giant list of names attached, very few of them have comedic styles that blend together well (or at all), and it leaves the movie feeling flat and uninteresting.
Two inept hunter/gatherers (Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh) are kicked out of their tribe for eating the forbidden fruit and decide to wander the early world in search of Zed’s destiny, to encounter the strange inhabitants of other civilizations, and to find the women that they want to hit over the head with a club and drag back to the cave.
Front and center in the movie are Jack Black and Michael Cera – a comedy pairing that just does not work. Black’s humor is so in-your-face and Cera’s is so out-of-your-face that the two never seem to meet in the middle. It probably sounded like a great idea on paper, but it falls flat on the screen. It’s essentially Black playing Black playing a caveman (that looks and talks suspiciously like Jack Black) while Michael Cera continues the same wussy-boy straight man concept that only worked in “Arrested Development” because it came in small doses.
Normally, having two leads that have no chemistry and can’t make the jokes work would cripple a film, but the movie has a crutch in the form of its supporting cast. A crutch that they rely so heavily upon that it made me wonder if director Harold Ramis realized his casting mistake early on. He does a fantastic job himself playing a version of Adam (yes, the first man ever) that’s understated and works, Hank Azaria has a great turn as a version of Abraham that seems oddly obsessed with foreskins, and David Cross (in probably his biggest role ever) is fantastic as the ever-wavering Cain who continues to help and betray the heroes along the way. Juno Temple and June Diane Raphael as the two love interests are passable, but Olivia Wilde is the true strong female presence in the flick as a Princess wishing to spread the wealth amongst the people of Sodom.
The real stand out is definitely Oliver Platt who steals every single scene he’s in. His character, the High Priest, is essentially a real-life version of Hedonism-Bot (or a reincarnation of Dom Deluise’s Caesar in History of the World Part I). It might simply be the juxtaposition of seeing a well-rounded actor playing such a ridiculous role, but even so, he goes above and beyond the call of duty to create a character that’s as flamboyantly absurd as what the costume designer dressed him in. His character is one of the high marks of the film, and it seems like (once again) Ramis realized this based on how much screen time Platt gets.
Which comes to the second round of What Could Have Been. I can’t help but wonder what this movie could have been like if Ramis had gotten to make it with the usual gang of idiots from the 1980s. What if it had been him alongside Bill Murray as crazy cavemen trying to impress the ladies and avoid getting stoned to death? It’s probably an unfair comparison, but it is an interesting thought considering that so much of the humor is based on a style of comedy popularized by Mel Brooks and carried into the 1980s by Ramis and his pals. Unfortunately, it’s a style that doesn’t blend well with the current style.
For example – the story. It’s actually a fairly interesting one, featuring a couple of outcasts (a classic devil-may-care screw up and a classic reluctant adventurer) that see the women they love enslaved and journey into odd lands, meeting odd people and getting into trouble. Of course, there’s a sense of urgency in the story from time to time, but it’s never genuine trouble. That’s perfect for a comedy like this where there shouldn’t be any real consequences for any of the situations. People’s lives are in danger, but that’s always going to be played for laughs.
Unfortunately, the scenarios are all so subdued that it doesn’t quite reach the pitch of absurdity needed to make something like this work. Putting aside the fact that Black and Cera don’t have the charm to pull something like that off, the scenes appear like they were written to be just strange enough to get a chuckle, but never absurd enough to force half the audience to bust out laughing while the other half sits wondering what’s so funny. It’s raunchy, but not nearly raunchy enough to rely on. It’s uncomfortable, but never truly absurd. It’s clever, but never really genius.
A few scenes will force some audible laughs – almost anytime the High Priest is paired with Oh, the scenes that already made you laugh from the trailer, and a scene where Oh is forced to pee while hanging upside down – but most of the jokes will warrant a small smile, like you do when your grandfather tells you a joke that was a real side-splitter back in his day. It’s not that an older style of humor isn’t still funny, it’s the personnel involved can’t make it work.
Overall, the film makes for the most average comedy audiences might see all year. It’s got a ton of name-recognition from the comedy world to draw you in, but ultimately the film steps up to the plate, points the bat at midfield, and cracks the ball directly to it. Which is unfortunate, because it might have been cool to see what might have been if this film swung for the fences.