Year One is so dedicated to being historically accurate that it only uses jokes that are at least two thousand years old.
Well, maybe not so much. For historical accuracy, I mean – the film is
all over the place when it comes to eras and characters from the Bible
– but I’m not kidding when I say this movie is stuffed with old jokes.
When Hank Azaria’s Abraham says, ‘We Hebrews are a good people. Not so
great at sports, though,’ you have to wonder if making a ‘Jews aren’t
good at sports’ joke IS the joke, like it’s some kind of meta comedy
about jokes that are ancient and wheezing. Except that’s clearly not
If any of these jokes worked I could forgive their age, but Year One is
loaded with clunkers. Punchlines are delivered and then fall lifeless
to the floor; I’m a well-known easy mark for laughter and even I only
laughed out loud a dozen times or so.
Most of those laughs came from Michael Cera. If anyone walks out of
this not-quite-a-disaster of a movie unscathed, it’s him. He has a
goofy low key sensibility that comes across well against every one
else’s manic over the top styles, especially Jack Black. I didn’t find
Black’s Blackisms quite so annoying in this film as he seems to be
unabashedly just playing himself (as is Cera), but that doesn’t mean I
found him funny.
The film wants to be shaggy; tight plotting and logic aren’t Year One’s
main concerns, and it would rather have Black and Cera wander into a
famous scene from the Bible than worry about geography or history. I
don’t mind that, but the film’s Bible jokes seem to come from a
half-remembered Sunday School class; Abraham’s whole schtick is
essentially circumcision and little else. It would have been
interesting to have a smartly dumb take on the Bible, but Year One opts
for just dumb dumb. Every set up seems to have a ton of comic gold
behind it, but screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg and
director Harold Ramis are just too lazy to dig for it.
Watching Year One I felt like it might be a hit with eight year olds;
anyone who hasn’t seen History of the World Part I and The Life of
Brian and who hasn’t been fully exposed to well-worn Borscht Belt
comedy could come away surprised. But even those people would balk at
the film’s sloggy pace; I understand that the film is looking to be
shaggy, but it just feels sloppy. Scenes simply end – one minute
Michael Cera is being choked by a snake, the next he’s back at his
village. This happens a lot, leaving you to wonder if most of the
film’s connective tissue sits on an editing room floor. And leaving you
to wonder if this was the funniest stuff they had, how bad is all of
that cut footage?
There are the standard cameos – Azaria as mentioned, McLovin’ as his
son, Bill Hader as a tribal witch doctor, David Cross floundering as
Cain – but the most egregious is a minute and a half of Paul Rudd as
Abel. Rudd is introduced and immediately murdered, and it’s almost like
the film saw no need to insert comedy into this scene. Watching Rudd
and Cross wrestle I wondered if this in and of itself was supposed to
be funny, but I couldn’t believe the script could be that lazy.
There are charms to Year One. The production design looks halfway
between the Holy Land theme park in Florida and a middle school Bible
play. And the actors in the film are almost all amiable; in a lot of
ways Year One is like going out with some people you like a lot and,
even though nothing interesting or funny happens or is said you feel
like you had an okay time. But still, at the end of the evening, you
sort of wish you had saved your money and stayed home.
What Year One really makes me fear, though, is Ghostbusters 3. Stupnitsky and Eisenberg are writing that script, and Harold Ramis may direct. I don’t know that I want to see this creative collaboration repeated anytime soon.