It’s been four years since Harold Ramis directed a movie (The Ice Harvest), seven since that movie was recognizable as a comedy (Analyze That), and 16 since that comedy was actually funny (Groundhog Day). It’s not possible to assemble any kind of through-line or worldview or even sense of humor that would help explain Ramis’ c.v., with his film work the past couple decades veering erratically and seemingly uncontrollably between quality and, well, something considerably less so. His latest, Year One, isn’t the turnaround he needed, either. It’s a film as far removed from comedy and wit as possible without turning into an outright meta-parody of bad comedies themselves. It possesses no brains, no heart, and not a single spark of life or joy that would make it worth watching. Even when he’s fallen short of the mark, Ramis has still proven himself a capable filmmaker, but Year One is an unmitigated disaster, the kind of stupid, unenjoyable, lame idea of a movie that never should have made it past whatever deluded brainstorming session loosed it on an unsuspecting America.
Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are cavemen on the outs with the rest of their tribe: Zed is a terrible hunter, and Oh just wants to be a gatherer/maker. The bland, broad characters are tailor-made for Black and Cera, who play the same versions of themselves — Black is cocky and dumb, Cera is mewling and uncertain — that they bring to most roles. But things start to fall apart immediately because Year One is all story and no plot, and it’s a weak one at that. Zed and Oh have nothing driving them except blind love for a pair of attractive women in their tribe, and after being exiled from the camp for starting a fire, they just stumble through a series of unconnected bits riffing on the book of Genesis. That’s it. There’s no point or direction to anything, merely Ramis’ desire to make (very, very) mildly entertaining jokes involving things like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the spat between Cain and Abel, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, etc. The screenplay from Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg is lifeless and dull, and the film so flatly shot, that it’s almost tempting to read the film as a high-concept spoof of spoof movies, which conflate humor with excess and cram in as many cultural references as possible in hopes of confusing the viewer into thinking they’ve seen something funny. But no, Year One isn’t a play on bad movies, it’s just a bad movie.
The tonal imbalance is evident in the historical mash-up, as well. Ramis’ characters coast through so many biblical stories and scenes that the film almost plays like a Christian-made parody, only with more eating of feces. There’s no announcement or sense to any of the action, either: It’s just Black and Cera talking modernly about “laying with” the women they adore from afar, then Paul Rudd and David Cross as Abel and Cain, Hank Azaria and Christopher “I Will Never Live Down McLovin” Mintz-Plasse as Abraham and Isaac, and many more all tripping over each other in a film that plays like a badly conceived video short gone horribly, terribly awry.
I wish I could do more than just list these and other embarrassments for you — could give you some idea of what Zed and Oh were doing and why they did it, or where the film was going — but I can’t because there is nothing else to the film besides these shamefully unfunny skits that are strung together without an ounce of forethought. There is nothing here. The problem isn’t Ramis’ subject matter, it’s his execution. He shoots for and sadly achieves a wocka-wocka-wocka level of quasi-humor that re-enacts highlights of the book of Genesis, but he’s so in love with that idea that he never bothers to flesh it out with a story or characters or, you know, jokes. To see such a collection of comedic actors assembled, and to have that talent subsequently squandered by a pathetic and terrible film, is a tragedy that unfortunately mirrors the destruction of Sodom that finds its way into the third act. The film is a blight that should be destroyed, and those who look back upon it will regret ever hearing its name.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.