Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters. Caddyshack. You'll want to remember those movies while watching Year One in order to remind yourself that filmmaker Harold Ramis has been funny. He was involved in some of the best comedies of the '80s and '90s -- perhaps even of all time -- so it's curious that not an iota of effort seems to have been put into his latest project. Year One wasn't doomed from the start: it definitely had a chance to be funny, and it's rare when a film with this much talent behind it falls so flat on its face.
Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are the sorriest pair of cavemen you'll ever meet -- the former a dim-witted sexaholic and the latter a gangly twerp. It comes as no surprise when the guys are expelled from their primitive clan. Left with no other choice than to explore the great unknown, Zed and Oh's travels end up turning into a sort of "greatest hits" compilation of figures from the Old Testament. There's Cain (David Cross), whose misdeeds extend beyond that little spat with brother Abel (Paul Rudd). The boys also run into Abraham (Hank Azaria), spending a little "quality time" with his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and eventually make their way to that most infamous of cities, Sodom. It's here where Zed and Oh each come to realize their destinies and start plotting to rescue their captured gal pals (Juno Temple and June Diane Raphael) from being on the receiving end of a virgin sacrifice.
I would expect something like Year One to come from the likes of the guys behind Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans. True, there are no aimless pop culture references (hallelujah!), but the same desperation is there, the dogged insistence on hammering a joke home when every attempt proves fruitless. It's not that biblical comedies are a lost cause -- Monty Python's Life of Brian and History of the World: Part I did quite well. What separates these films comes down to a simple issue of goals. Mel Brooks and the Python boys had things they wanted to achieve and enough cleverness to do so. Year One appears nowhere nearly as ambitious, its idea of humor consisting of culling random notables from the Bible and matching them up with a bodily function.
Year One has no real jokes in mind, occasionally punctuating its story with anachronistic dialogue and a noise coming from one orifice or another. But what hurts most is that people who should know better are included among the cast and crew. Ramis may have experienced a comedic drought during this decade (aside from the underseen The Ice Harvest), but count in producer Judd Apatow and two writers who've worked on TV's The Office. I can't help wondering what went horribly wrong here. The laughs are not only cheap but virtually nonexistent, and the actors are stuck paying the price for signing onto what might be the most embarrassing roles of their careers. Both Black and Cera work almost exclusively in their comfort zones (the wild child and the wallflower, respectively) without much variation, and the supporting cast plays out like an uninspired game of Spot the Cameo. Neither group earns so much as a chuckle, though the mere sight of Vinnie Jones bursting out of nowhere incites just the tiniest smirk. This movie was probably more fun to make than to watch, though it's hard to imagine anyone having a great time trudging through the desert in a loincloth.
Some of the best comedies in recent years were released under the Judd Apatow umbrella. Still, Apatow has unleashed his fair share of stinkers. For every Anchorman there's a Step Brothers, and for every near-genius work like Knocked Up there's a bona fide bomb like the lethargic Year One, a textbook example of comedy at its most misguided.
MY RATING: * (out of ****)
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence.)