Year One: Eagerly Awaiting the Invention of the Guffaw
If you find the idea of watching Jack Black and Michael Cera hang out and exchange banter for ninety minutes enticing, then Year One may be your cup of tea. If you prefer things such as character development and storyline, immediately search elsewhere. While I felt the similarly meandering Land of the Lost would have benefited from a total lack of plot, here the lack of plot sinks the characters, to the point where it plays like a very long SNL sketch rather than a film. Does it have laughs? Sure, the cast is funny, and Harold Ramis wouldn’t leave us completely in the lurch. Still, I wish it would’ve decided what it was– parody? gross-out comedy? Apatowian buddy flick?– and then the ratio of successful jokes to bombs might have been less even.
There is no point in introducing character names, so I’ll tell the synopsis of the plot the way I remember it. Jack Black is Jack Black, the misfit hunter caveman who begins the film by hitting Horatio Sanz in the back with a spear. This is a great comic setup, but Sanz isn’t in any real pain, and Black is in no immediate danger of retaliation, so the first gag of the film begins with a thud. Michael Cera is Michael Cera, the gathering caveman who collects berries for fruit salad instead of hunting like the other men– this is a setup for him to be the “womanly” character who has to sleep with other men and rub hot oil onto fat hairy chests. But more on that later. They both have love interests, played by the game June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple (teehee, Michael Cera’s love interest’s in the film is named Juno in real life!), who understandably are repulsed by our two heroes. After an accident, at the urging of the tribe’s shaman (an unrecognizable Bill Hader), they set out on their own… into biblical times. They meet Cain (David Cross), Abel (Paul Rudd), Abraham (Hank Azaria), Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a.k.a. McLovin), and the High Priest of Sodom, played by Oliver Platt with such gusto that I didn’t know if I was impressed or frightened.
Several gags go gross– nearly all of them involve Michael Cera being tortured by farts, pee, or the come-ons of the hairy-chested High Priest. The best part about the film is the earnestness some of the actors give the performances. Black and Cera both aren’t acting, they’re living in their own personality and cherishing that opportunity. Black delivers every line as if he’ll never act again, Cera does his under-his-breath throwaway line reading that he’s famous for, and both actors earn their share of chuckles. Still, you don’t attend a high-concept summer comedy for chuckles, you want guffaws. The guffaws, I regret to say, never come. It is content being a star-studded mildly amusing flick, which will likely play better on TNT when there’s nothing else on than it will play on the big screen. It’s all windup and no punch– when Cera’s own urine is pouring into his face for the 15th consecutive second or so, I could only think of one thing: Steve Carell peeing in his own face in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was funny, because it came out of character and circumstance, not desperation for a laugh using the Lowest Comic Denominator. Here we have Apatowian freeform dialogue and gross-out gags, but instead of the quick hit of gross that Apatow delivers, Ramis is content pouring it on thick and rubbing it in. Not unlike, say, hot oil onto a fat hairy man’s chest.
Note: For all the time spent in Sodom, I think I counted only three sodomy jokes. Alas, none of them involved action movie star Vinnie Jones, who might have gotten a laugh for being the most hardboiled actor ever to make sodomy jokes in a broad comedy.