Year One

The gag reel.  It’s become a fairly standard bonus feature on DVDs in recent years.  Originally assembled to entertain casts and crews during wrap parties (those lighthearted farewell gatherings that follow the completion of a production), these bloopers can now be enjoyed by anyone who cares to see them.  At any time you choose, you can press play on your remote or click the left button of your mouse and see your favourite stars flub their lines and giggle incessantly.
I have this theory about movie bloopers, specifically the ones that happen unexpectedly during comedy shoots:  the funnier the finished film turns out to be, the weaker the outtakes.  But if the movie is a comic stiff, there’s more than a good chance that the outtakes will feature some very funny unscripted moments of their own.  Let me offer an example of each.  The Beverly Hillbillies is terribly unfunny but the gag reel that pops up during the closing credits inspires more laughs than the actual film.  The first two American Pies are hilarious but the bloopers for both titles, included on their respective DVDs, are less than stellar.
The biblical comedy Year One showcases a gag reel during its end titles, as well.  Jack Black cuts one in the middle of an unused take with costar Michael Cera.  Saturday Night Live player Bill Hader, incognito in his shaman get-up, offers three quick celebrity impressions.  The stunning Olivia Wilde makes a humourous ad-lib in place of the actual line she’s supposed to say.   Paul Rudd gets a laugh through an unanticipated gesture.  Even Director Harold Ramis gets into the act by allowing an enormous yellow snake to wrap itself around him.  Some of these bits are really funny, even though they’re just end-of-movie throwaways, and they’re preferable to the mostly disgusting gags that make up the majority of the picture, one of the worst of 2009.
Black and Cera play best friends who are the least respected members of their tribe and with good reason.  In the opening scene set in The Garden of Eden (which is never mentioned by name), a number of hunters from the group are after a wild boar.  Just when a couple of the men have the beast cornered, disaster strikes.  Demonstrating remarkably bad aim, Black hurls his spear at one of his own in a foolhardy attempt to prove his worth to the tribe.  Cera, a gatherer (we first meet him picking strawberries off the ground), fares no better a little later on when he showcases his awkward and unamusing "fertility dance" in front of Black’s sister (Juno Temple), a cute blond girl who wants nothing to do with him, during an evening of leisure.  Even though she humours him by reluctantly joining in, he ruins the moment by wacking her over the head with a big club.  (What’s with the meanspirited caveman schtick?) 
Black can’t find a mate, either, unless you count his mother (I’ve said too much).  His love interest, Maya (June Diane Raphael), is an attractive brunette far more taken with Marlak (a fiercesome Matthew Willig), the tribe’s leader.  After he returns from the boar hunt, there’s a quick moment where Maya inspects what he’s packing under his loincloth.  Judging by her reaction, Black can’t compete.  That being said, no one should be surprised how these transparently obvious storylines are inevitably resolved.
At one point, Black takes a bite of a glowing piece of fruit from The Tree of Knowledge, a forbidden gesture that ultimately becomes the last straw for his tribemates.  Just before he exits, he makes an unsubtle plea for Cera to join him which he eventually does (what other options does he have?), but not before he unintentionally starts a fire that destroys their huts. 
On the move and desperate for food, they encounter an argument between Cain (an obnoxious David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd).  It leads to several acts of violence that are not the least bit funny.  In fact, they’re quite painful to watch.  (Gives new meaning to the term "stoner comedy".)  Fearing the consequences of his actions, Cain scares our heroes into staying silent.  Then, he screws them over by selling them into slavery where they just happen to be reunited with their tribe, none of whom are happy to see them.  But then, they get separated again after an ambush by Roman soldiers, led by the very English Vinnie Jones who would’ve been right at home in Pulp Fiction’s dungeon scene.
Cera and Black soon find themselves in another uncomfortable situation.  The Middle East is suffering from a seemingly endless drought and the best idea anyone has to bring on the rain is to sacrifice virgins, usually females.  In other words, they’re screwed.  Absurdly claiming that it’s all God’s idea, Abraham (Hank Azaria) informs his son, Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse AKA McLovin from Superbad), that he’s gotta take one for the team.  Black stops him in the nick of time.  Later on, in one of the few genuinely funny moments in the picture, Azaria tries to dissuade Black and Cera from ever entering Sodom by emphasizing all the reasons they would want to go.  Once the scene shifts there we meet the rebellious Princess Inanna (the absolutely beautiful Olivia Wilde).  Unlike her ruling parents (who are known simply as King and Queen), she empathizes with the starving townspeople but feels powerless to do anything other than not eat.  Meanwhile, Black and Cera reconnect with the dastardly Cain (who, it should be noted, lacks any kind of wit whatsoever).  Through his help, they become Roman soldiers and once again, reunite with the members of their tribe.
Year One was co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, the SCTV alumnus who made the rather inspired Groundhog Day.  Here, you wonder what he and his fellow screenwriters were smoking the entire time they were putting the script together.  Despite some effective moments (including those gag reel bits), it’s just one bad gross-out gag after another.  One character is obsessed with cutting foreskins.  Another, hanging upside down in a dungeon, pees on himself when he can’t hold it in any longer.  A eunich throws his severed testicles during a public stoning.  When he’s not examining animal organs for the purpose of soothsaying, the overly flamboyant High Priest character (Oliver Platt who deserves better) gets super aroused when oil is rubbed all over his ridiculously hairy chest.  He also never stops hitting on Michael Cera.  Then, there’s the guy who bangs farm animals and is in love with his own flatulence.  You get the idea.
If only the movie was more interested in satirizing the conventional wisdom of this period.  God knows there’s plenty of material to make fun of.  Unfortunately, Year One wants to be the biblical American Pie but without the sweetness and the hilarity.  However, it does have some redeeming qualities.
This is the first time I’ve seen Olivia Wilde in a film and she’s does a nice job playing Princess Inanna.  She’s the only character who maintains a presence of grace and dignity throughout.  We like her every time she’s on screen.  Even though we know where her loyalties lie, she’s an intriguing mystery.  There’s a scene where she passes through town and everyone is supposed to bow down to the ground and avoid eye contact.  Jack Black doesn’t and that doesn’t go unnoticed.  Later on, she summons him to a private meeting and the movie briefly shows signs of life.  The screenwriters made a major miscalculation in avoiding a potential romance between them.  There’s an immediate chemistry.  It doesn’t make any sense that Black would choose anyone over her.
The cinematography, the costumes and the sets are also first rate.  Unfortunately, because the characters in Year One never stop talking and a good number of the jokes are so disturbing, the technical strengths of the picture are not enough to shift your interest from the weak comedy to the great visuals.
It’s sad to see Jack Black, one of the funniest, most inherently lovable actors in the movies, reduced to playing such a dimwitted boob.  He has his moments but his character is so delusional and careless, it’s hard to warrant much support for him.  Michael Cera, so natural and funny in Superbad, looks like he’s just going through the motions here.  He, too, has a couple of funny lines but it’s hard to care for his character, as well.
Past the midway point of the screening I attended with an old friend, there was this rather distinctive noise coming from someone in the audience.  For a good 10 or 20 minutes, you could hear him snoring while the rest of us were trying to focus on the movie.  I envied him.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 12, 2009
3:00 p.m. 
Published in: on July 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Nice one, bro!

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