Director Harold Ramis
first had the idea for Year One over thirty years ago. In 1975, after watching a documentary on the Stone Age, he wrote an improv with Bill Murray and John Belushi as cavemen; the former as a hip-talking Cro-Magnon Man, the latter as a grunting neanderthal. Sadly, what makes a funny sketch in the seventies doesn't make for a particularly amusing movie in the modern age. Stretched painfully thin to feature length, it's a concept that's gestated for 34 years but hasn't evolved a microbe. It also proves that the Harold Ramis of '09 has nothing on the Harold Ramis of '75.
Year One sees cavemen Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) yearn for a life beyond hunting, gathering and having the shit beaten out of them by the village muscle-men. When Zed eats forbidden fruit from the Tree Of Knowledge, the pair are forced to leave at the sharp end of a spear but wind up embarking on an epic journey, where they meet various Biblical characters on the road to the whore-ridden streets of Sodom. It plays fast and loose with the facts, though still manages to be more historically accurate than 10,000 B.C.
The idea is solid if a little quaint; Year One feels like a throwback to a Mel Brooks movie of old. But while there's definite mileage in having two cavemen conversing in the modern tongue and stumbling awkwardly through the Book of Genesis, the script singularly fails to wring any well-earned laughs from a potentially hilarious concept. Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky cut their teeth on the American version of The Office, but their screenplay here is peppered with crude humour and fart gags. The Bible is the richest source of comedy ever written - was having Jack Black eat shit and Michael Cera piss in his hair really
the best they could do?
Both leads bring their own baggage, too. Black plays Zed just like every other character he's ever played - an over-confident, preening jackass - and is irritating almost to the point of nausea. Similarly, Michael Cera doesn't bother to depart from his George-Michael Bluth template of nervous, jittery sidekick - it's an act that's getting old, but still raises a smile every now and then. Cera's comic timing has always been exquisite, which is more than can be said for Black's wide-eyed act - while Black tries to rise to the surrounding lunacy, Cera at least seems to be aware of how ridiculous it is.
Year One feels less like a coherent movie and more like a series of skits, poking fun at various easy targets from the pages of The Bible. David Cross and Paul Rudd play the story of Cain and Abel as slapstick squabble; Hank Azaria and McLovin drag a circumcision joke out to around 20 minutes; Vinnie Jones (there's
your neanderthal) reprises his one-note tough guy act as a Roman soldier. Only Oliver Platt's debauched High Priest provides adequate distraction, although even he has to suffer gags of the 'fat and hairy' variety. Honestly, the plot is flimsier than Jack Black's loincloth.
There are brief moments when you suspect that a much smarter script was lost in the edit; moments where Zed and Oh point out the inherent ludicrousness and savagery of organised religion and the blind zealotry it inspires. But then someone farts again and anything remotely clever gets a bonk on the bonce. Year One is the most exhausting kind of comedy; the type that you desperately want to succeed but that wastes all of its potential on pandering to the lowest common denominator. You laugh at it, not with it.
If Ramis, Eisenberg and Stupnitsky are to be the team that bring us Ghostbusters III, then on this evidence, we'll have to say thanks but no thanks - some ideas are best left in the past, and Year One is one of them.