Year One

If you’re of a certain age, you probably can’t help feeling a certain respect and affection for Harold Ramis. He co-wrote Animal House and Stripes. He directed Groundhog Day and the sadly underappreciated Multiplicity. He was one of the Ghostbusters, for Christ’s sake. For my generation, at least, he’s a great American hero of comedy. So it gives me no pleasure to report that Ramis’ new film, Year One, is a laughless dud. When Ramis went home every night from filming, did he honestly think he’d shot anything funny? Even the end-credits bloopers are weak.

Year One is a rambling saga, shaggy by design, about two oafish villagers, Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera). They get in all kinds of allegedly riotous adventures, though their main focus is on getting fed and getting laid. The script (by Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg — the latter two are veterans of NBC’s The Office) makes casual hash of history; it begins in hunter-gatherer times, then progresses through Biblical times. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the situations Zed and Oh shamble in and out of are tired beyond belief. Even the Cain-and-Abel shtick has been done better and funnier by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman in comic books that weren’t even primarily comedic.

David Cross, as Cain, has a bigger role than you’d expect, which is nice; whenever Cross is up there, you can fool yourself into thinking the film is wittier than it is. But then you might remember Cross’s famous blog entry defending his appearance in Alvin and the Chipmunks — basically, because he wanted a new house. Maybe the house needed a new roof. Then again, I can easily picture Cross, Black, Cera, and many others in the cast eager to work with Ramis, and maybe everyone had so much fun on the set they really didn’t notice they were churning out slop. I laughed once — once — when Michael Cera listens to a warning about the whore-infested Sodom and Gomorrah, and asks which one has more whores.

Year One is also startlingly retrograde coming from someone as presumably evolved as Ramis. There’s a great deal of homophobic “humor” (mostly via Oliver Platt’s mincing, mascara’ed high priest), and the female characters, though lovely, are zeroes; June Diane Raphael, a comedy writer herself, puts a quirky spin on her lines as Maya, a gatherer Zed has his eye on, but as written Maya exists to be lusted after and rescued. There’s grossout gags for kids — Zed licks a bear turd, Oh pisses all over his own face (as pointed a metaphor for how Cera’s and everyone else’s talents are wasted in this movie as any) — and there are more “adult” gags (an incest joke, an F-bomb, much much too much foreskin humor). The word is that Year One was trimmed to avoid an R rating. In that case, who was its intended audience at the filmmaking stage? It’s too infantile for adults and often too risqué for kids (there’s also a fellating-a-banana bit).

Harold Ramis is a smart man, although not infallible — he made the funny Analyze This, for instance, and then couldn’t leave well enough alone and made the inferior Analyze That. His previous film, 2005’s bitterly witty The Ice Harvest, pointed at an edgier and darker direction for Ramis, but that film tanked, so no more dark and edgy for Ramis, I guess. It may be that Ramis just wants to work with funny people and have a good time (one reason why he might’ve wanted to return to the Analyze well); sometimes that works out for all of us, too, and sometimes what we’re left with is an unfunny home video of a lot of talented people throwing a party we weren’t invited to.

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