Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Year One

By Elise Nakhnikian

I don’t get the backlash against Year One. Are people just getting tired of Jack Black and Michael Cera playing the same characters? Is Year One’s glib, good-natured vibe too retro – and not retro in a cool way, but in a Hope-Crosby road movie kind of way? Or is it just that humor’s a subjective thing and lots of people didn’t find it funny?

All I know is, I hate to see all the hating that’s being done on this amiable little goof of a buddy movie.

Year One is set in the same alphabet soup of ancient history that spawned Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. Its bumbling buddies are Zed and Oh, a failed would-be hunter and a suspiciously girly gatherer who start out in a tiny Stone Age village and wind up in Sodom, the ultimate city.

Zed is played by Black and Oh by Cera, so you know who these guys are from the moment you see them. The two work well with each other and with the movie’s Fractured Fairy Tales-ish settings, maybe because both actors have honed their personas to such a fine point that they feel almost like animated characters.

Zed’s another of Black’s demonically cheery Ritalin babies, a bouncing ball of id who lives to break the rules. Oh is one of Cera’s patented beta males, a sad-eyed, sweet-natured innocent who just wants to stay out of trouble and land the girl of his dreams.

When Zed gets kicked out of their village for breaking its one unbreakable rule, Oh tags mournfully along, seemingly against his own will. They amble out into a whole world of trouble, most of which lands on Oh’s hunched shoulders.

Director and cowriter Harold Ramis sends the two ping-ponging from one mythical tableau to the next, like extras wandering through a series of soundstages. The scenes they bumble into are generally either spoofs of costume dramas about prehistoric times or retellings of Old Testament tales by way of the Borscht Belt.

Before they wind up in Sodom – which the script keeps comparing to Vegas – Oh and Zed come across Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd) just as Cain is trying to kill his brother. They also round a corner on Abraham (a bug-eyed Hank Azaria) as he’s about to kill his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad’s McLovin) – though he doesn’t see it that way. “I wasn’t going to kill him,” Abraham insists. “I was going to sacrifice him. There’s a tremendous difference.”

“Not to him, I’m guessing,” Oh responds.

At each new setting, the two do a little shtick, fall into mortal danger, and wriggle free. Sometimes they also reconnect, in a cursory sort of way, with their obligatory love interests, two girls from their village who wind up on a compulsory road trip of their own.

There’s a lot of Mel Brooks in Year One, which likes its humor broad and liberally laced with gay jokes, fart jokes, and physical humor. There’s some Woody Allen in its tossed-off one-liners (“We are the Hebrews – righteous people, but not very good at sports,” Abraham tells Oh and Zed as he shows them around his village) and its loving spoofs of movie clichés, like the flawless 21st-century hair and makeup on Oh’s and Zed’s otherwise primitive mates.

There’s even a little Monty Python in its potshots at arbitrary religious customs – but only a little. Ramis and his co-writers, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (The Office), are going for a less conceptual, more potty-mouthed humor than the Pythons, so where Life of Brian spoofed things like the religious splinter groups that sprang up around the birth of Christianity, Year One doesn’t ponder anything much deeper than the pain of circumcision.

The best parts of Year One are pure shtick, like Cain’s protracted murder of his surprisingly resilient brother, or the long list of crimes ending in “-try,” (idolatry, etc.) for which Zed and Oh are condemned to death – including puppetry and punditry. I also loved the bit where Zed and Oh first enter Sodom and a woman tries to arouse their interest by fellating a banana. “She’s really making that banana last,” Oh remarks .

Some of the jokes about the religious dogma reminded me of Bill Maher’s Religulous, and comparing this silly business to that self-righteous lecture made me like Year One that much more.

Year One doesn’t take anything all that seriously – including itself. It may try to tack on a moral at the end about thinking for yourself, but it’s not fooling anyone: all it really wants to do is make you laugh. I was smiling when I left the theater, and what’s not to like about that?

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