Sunday, June 21, 2009

Year One: The Discovery of Schtick

The trailer for Year One is promising. It suggests a kind of high-concept parody of 10,000 BC, staring Jack Black and Michael Cera as an almost modern-day Dean Martin /Jerry Lewis wandering through a mish-mash of pre- and post- history. Jack Black does his lovable idiot thing and Michael Cera does his mumbled nerd thing amongst tribal infighting, Biblical sketch comedy, and Peleponesian ritual sacrifice.

Sounds like it might offer a laugh or two. Jack Black and Michael Cera are two cave men ("Zed" and "Oh") who have to leave the tribe after Zed eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge and accidentally burns down the camp. Like Martin and Lewis traveling the desert, the two head out into the wide world in search of mishap and adventure.

It's hard to say exactly where this high-concept parody goes wrong. Is it the wondering story, that quickly leaves our pre-historic setup and enters into some kind of Biblical textbook, sending the characters through various Old Testament set-ups without any particular rhyme or reason? Well, other comedies have pulled that off - Monty Python practically made a career out of it.

Is it the low-brow poop and pee humor, that disgusts more than it entertains? Well, comedies from Something About Mary to Austin Powers have turned such scatological gags into an art form.

Is it the lovingly Jewish old-Testament humor, which seems right out of the Catskills? I don't know: Mel Brooks turned a completely Jewish-inflected type of paranoia, in the Producers, into a Broadway hit.

So where did Harold Ramis go wrong? Was he overcome by Jack Black's self-involved humor, and couldn't give him any real direction for his scenes? Did he fail to develop the jokes, and let running relatively unfunny gags like a pathologically lying Cain run on too long? Did he rely too much on old low-brow staples like tired pedophilia humor and jokes about hairy palms? Was it the presence of a vamping, hairy Oliver Platt as the High Priest, or the brooding Vinnie Jones as the sullen guard, who bring the movie to a screeching halt? Did it all go wrong in the editing bay, when all the random humor came together without any real punch?

Could be all of that. For the most part, Cera holds up his end of the movie, taking his lovable mumbling schlep character into the simple past, where he just wants to get his wick wet with camp hottie Eema. Cera ballances Black's extra-buffoonish performance with some well needed sarcasm, and makes this hour-and-a-half movie, which seems interminably long, somewhat bearable.

But really, this movie would have been much more serviceable as a six minute sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Ramis's attempts to stretch the concept into a feature prove that not all good comedy concepts can stand the full scrutiny of a cinematic treatment.

The one insight from this film is that we seem to have finally established the next generation of comedians. With figures like Black, Cera, and the irrepressible Christopher Mintz-Plasse now able to make flops as easily as blockbusters, we've definitely passed the baton to tomorrow's comedians. Let's hope on their next outing, they have a better go of it.

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