Year: One, Laughs: Zero

06/19/2009 11:12 AM |

64b2/1245427298-yearonesmall.jpgHey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their art-house cave, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week they feel old and icky watching Harold Ramis’s religious romp Year One.

Let’s start with the basics, Ben: why the heck is this movie called Year One? It’s set in some fantastical (read: nonsensical) conflation of prehistory and Old Testament times—two different time frames simultaneously occurring, like in a Philip K. Dick novel. Either way, we’re talking about thousands of years Before the Common Era in both cases; if it were Year One, we’d be in the dawn of time, or at least the days of Jesus, though he’s conspicuously missing from this Bible-crazy movie. (I’ll let you expand on that.)

And yet another era gets folded into the film as well: the contemporary. Jack Black and Michael Cera star as exiled cavemen who meet most of the Torah’s major figures: the Tree of Knowledge, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and finally, for a superlong sequence, the residents of Sodom. (Guess if anyone makes anal sex jokes—like, over and over again.) But Black and Cera stay in their comfort zones, playing the respective Oscar and Felix types they play in everything else they’re in. (They’re like temporal travelers from 21st Century America, though no one ever mentions anything about a time machine.) The movie opens by mimicking Apocalypto—the parody so blatant that you think the “directed by” credit will go to Mel Brooks rather than Harold Ramis—another movie that anachronistically applied contemporary social dynamics to historical types. The only difference is that this movie does it consciously, for laughs. Sporadic, sporadic laughs.

The other flick it’s aping, from start to finish, is Superbad—except, you know, with Neanderthals instead of Today’s Teens. Like Greg Mottola’s drags-in-the-middle comedy, Year One essentially follows two sex-crazy guys as they wander through a nightmarish dry dream, in which the coitus is perpetually interruptus. Also like that film, it starts out strong (well, I laughed a few times) but quickly becomes mired in arbitrary set-ups. Any laughs that this movie manages to provoke (usually courtesy of Cera’s straight-man dry wit) arise from the one-liners and banter. But the comedy doesn’t move the plot along, so as the filmmakers try to come up with a coherent narrative, and as the makeshift story slogs through to a lame conclusion, the movie becomes not only laughless but boring: I had to lean my head against the neighboring seat back to keep it propped up.

Anyway, do you think Cera and Black’s inability to consummate their womanlust resulted from their characters’ latent homosexuality? The relationship between Superbad’s heroic duo had a pretty conspicuous sexual subtext (see about 40 seconds into this clip); here, when the characters say goodbye, it’s pretty romantic: they hug, cry, and memorize each other’s smells. If that were true, that Black and Cera’s characters are a couple of queers, it might make sense of all the gay jokes and homophobia (which are still so regrettably common to studio comedies)—a classic case of overcompensating by two primitive bromancers. But you don’t have to wade through the film’s sexual politics, Ben—I’d rather hear what you have to say about its religiousness.

Well Henry, as it happens, Year One’s first reference to the Old Testament spells out both its religious and sexual views pretty plainly. Enraged by his exclusion from the tribe, Black leads Cera (named Zed and Oh, respectively, which had me hoping that all the cavemen would be named after letters of the alphabet, but alas it’s just another loose thread) to the Tree of Knowledge. Black bites into the forbidden fruit, effectively becoming Adam to Cera’s effete Eve—who’s a gatherer, remember, and is so thoroughly emasculated during the entire film that I started to understand how he could snap at some random crewmember, Christian Bale-style.

Ostensibly, Black is defying local law to get the cavewoman of his dreams Maya (June Diane Raphael), although Cera’s pop quiz quickly reveals that he doesn’t know where babies come from. Rather, Zed and Oh (whose names kept making me think of Peter Greenaway’s fairly biblical A Zed and Two Noughts). They are the dimwitted original (gay) couple from whom we’re all descended, which helps to explain how a stupid project like this ever got made. Of course, the over-determined queerness of the High Priest (Oliver Platt) is intended to obscure the central couple’s romantic love, and frankly I’m surprised nobody made a comment about how flaming the priest was after he met his fiery death. (Also, aren’t jokes about boy-hungry priests fairly prehistoric at this point?)

Maybe that would be too clever for a film whose sense of humor is stuck in the stone age—we get fart jokes, poop jokes, pee jokes, armpit hair jokes, oily massage jokes, STD jokes and sex toy jokes (but, strangely, no sperm jokes). I was skeptical after reading Jack Black’s suggestion that Year One was somehow similar to The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, and indeed, that Monty Python allusion might be the most sacrilegious thing about Ramis’s movie. The Python crew would surely have made light of how this film’s jumbled timeline makes absolutely no sense and that, in turn, Western religions’ tenuous claims to historical fact are equally bogus.

Instead, the only moment when Year One loses faith—an exasperated Cera suggests god might not exist—is quickly papered over by his “just in case you do” footnote, and the ensuing climax that turns Black into the Messianic figure he’s claimed to be since he ate the forbidden fruit. In the end, homebody Cera (now a real man for having punched one woman and slept with another, a minor distinction for this film) returns to civilize the wild villagers by teaching the miraculous stories of Zed. Black, in similarly missionary fashion, strikes out across the desert towards Egypt. Somewhere, somehow, Times super-critic Manohla Dargis found something smart and substantive in this devout dung-heap, claiming that Zed and Oh were “grappling with issues of faith.” The only thing they’re grappling with is how to remain the ruling deities of their tiny little world. Perhaps that explains Year One’s title: it recounts the origin myth of a long-disappeared gay Christian fundamentalist sect.

(photo credit: © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)