Monday, October 5, 2009

On DVD: "Year One"

Maybe it’s just a matter of expectations. When Year One opened in June of 2009, it looked to be the can’t-miss comedy of the summer. The current King Midas of comedy, Judd Apatow, was producing for his idol, co-writer/director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation). Ramis wrote the screenplay with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, staff writers for the U.S. version of The Office. The picture was fronted by Jack Black and Michael Cera, with an able supporting cast, including David Cross, Hank Azaria, Christopher “McLovin’” Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, and Oliver Platt. The trailer was killer. The concept (though clearly derivative of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1) was solid. And then it came out, and everyone hated it.

Reviews ranged from mildly disappointed to openly hostile (it sits at 16% at Rotten Tomatoes, and both of the reviews on this site were pretty brutal) and box office was middling; it opened just shy of $20 million, but nosedived to barely $6 million in weekend two, as toxic word of mouth spread. It quickly disappeared from view, and now arrives quietly on DVD and Blu-ray. And here’s the thing: It’s not that bad.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that great either. A crew of modern comic all-stars like this one should, certainly, be able to put together a picture that is more consistently funny than this one, which runs roughshod over Biblical stories and caveman epics without managing to sustain much in the way of comic ingenuity. Black and Cera play a pair of hunter-gatherers (Black’s Zed is a terrible hunter, Cera’s Oh is a frustrated, fussy gatherer) in a small village. Zed is cast out of the village after eating the forbidden fruit (“it tastes knowledge-y,” he notes), and Oh follows, more out of boredom than anything else. The duo then embarks on a journey that crosses paths with Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and their dream girls from the village (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple), who have been sold to slavery and are on their way to the sinful city of Sodom (lots and lots of sodomy jokes ensue).

Year One is wildly hit and miss, but it is not without laughs (fitful though they may be). Cain and Abel are played by Cross and Rudd; their first scene (Rudd’s only one) is pretty funny, and Cross’s Cain keeps turning up, sometimes to help out Zed and Oh, more often to sell them out. The pair stumbles upon Abraham (Azaria) at the moment he is about to sacrifice Isaac (Mintz-Plasse) in a burnt offering; challenged for attempting to murder his son, he protests, “We were playing a game. It’s called burny burny, cut cut.” One of the funniest scenes follows soon after, as Abraham explains circumcision. Cera protests, “Couldn’t we pierce our ears or something?” “No, no, no, trust me,” Azaria assures him. “This’ll be a very sleek look. It’s gonna catch on.”

Where the picture fails to amuse, and badly, is in its attempts at gross-out humor. An early dip into the murky waters of the scatological is a stomach-churning misfire, and the film’s other shots at gross-out humor fail just as badly; Ramis shoots this stuff too close up, and lets it go on for too long. This kind of thing is better suggested than explicitly shown—if it must be done at all. In his own directorial efforts, Apatow wisely steers mostly clear of this kind of toilet humor, though that’s a message he could push harder on the filmmakers he produces for; here (as in the disappointing Stepbrothers), he forgets that just because you can get away with cheap middle-school vulgarity, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

Much of that raunchiness comes courtesy of the repellant character played by Oliver Platt, an actor who is frequently very funny (as in Ramis’ previous film, the underrated Ice Harvest), but not here. Playing a ribald, cross-dressing high priest decked out in eye make-up and more body hair than Robin Williams, he overplays to a point of distraction. Black and Cera are basically playing their go-to stock types, but they manage to wring a few more laughs out of them; Cera’s shy, stuttery delivery may have grown tiresome to some, but not this viewer, and while Black’s wild-man schtick has perhaps run its course, his high-energy performance helps to keep things moving along. Even he can’t sell the “feel good” ending, however, which lands with a thud and pulls the picture past a 90-minute mark that it shouldn’t have breached.

Director Harold Ramis and producer Judd Apatow each have several great comedies to their names; make no mistake, Year One ain’t one of ‘em. But it certainly surpasses its noxious reputation, and may very well provide a few chuckles on a hung-over Sunday afternoon.

"Year One" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 6th.

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