Harold Ramis once upon a time embodied hip, cutting-edge film comedy. As a writer and director, he presided over a golden age that spanned Meatballs, Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Amazingly, that streak was followed by a string of titles characterized by a more mature, frequently meta, almost pre-Charlie Kaufman sensibility, including the underrated Multiplicity and the properly revered Groundhog Day. So it is a sad experience indeed to find him now, late in his career, channeling late-career Mel Brooks.
Year One is little more than a half-baked, halfhearted riff on The History of the World, Part 1 (1981) whose creators have enlisted Judd Apatow as producer, along with a representative sampling of his on-screen regulars, in an effort to provide the illusion of relevance. Don’t be taken in. This shtick is at least a generation past its expiration date.
Jack Black and Michael Cera star as a hut-dwelling hunter and gatherer, respectively. Black is Zed. He possesses the skill set to snag neither a wild boar for his tribe’s dinner nor the prehistoric hottie of his dreams, Maya (June Diane Raphael). Cera is Oh, a gentle, golden-tressed sidekick who murmurs lovingly to his harvest as he collects the berries “least touched by bird poop.” Poop and pee-pee figure prominently in Year One, something that — outside the work of John Waters — is almost never a promising sign.
The script by Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg is a sorry hodgepodge of scrambled history. The village, for example, just happens to be located a short walk from the Tree of Knowledge. The pair is banished after Zed helps himself to one of its golden apples (experiencing not the slightest bump in IQ, for reasons that go unexplained) and embarks on a juvenile journey that involves tripping over new famous figures from the Bible every five or 10 minutes.
You know a comedy’s hopeless when even scenes featuring Paul Rudd aren’t funny. Moments into their sojourn, the two bump into Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Rudd) by the side of the road. The brothers squabble, a brick-sized stone is brandished and, the next thing you know, Rudd’s skull is turned into a bowl of salsa. Are we having fun yet?
Around the next corner, Abraham (Hank Azaria) is seconds from sacrificing his son Isaac, played by a similarly squandered Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad’s McLovin). Exactly how do you get Cera and Mintz-Plasse together in a movie produced by Apatow and not have something memorable happen? Against all odds, they manage it.
And we’re off to Sodom, which looks suspiciously like ancient Rome. There Black and Cera run into their village crushes (Oh has a thing for Eema, played by Juno Temple), who desperately require rescuing. Maya and Eema have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, though the script is quickly diverted from this development and devoted instead to a succession of gags and jokes viewers under 12 may find howlingly risqué. It’s Sodom — get it?
A typical sight gag has Cera painted head to toe in gold and forced to massage the preposterously hairy chest of a mincing high priest (Oliver Platt) with hot oil. Like the rest of the cast, Platt’s a gifted performer whose talents prove insufficient to the task of making what he does here in front of the camera even remotely entertaining.
Numerous performances, in fact, reminded me of the sort of over-the-top mugging Tim Conway and Harvey Korman specialized in each week on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Audiences’ funny bones may have been tickled by this brand of hammy zaniness back when LBJ was in the White House, but this picture’s made for their grandchildren. At least I think it was. On second thought, I’m not sure I can say with any certainty either why or for whom this movie was made.
Cera’s understated delivery serves him nicely enough, though he frequently appears lost. Nonetheless, he’s responsible for the film’s few touches that provide fleeting pleasure. The news is bad for Black, however. This cat’s act has had it. I believe I suggested it had begun to get old about the time Nacho Libre was in theaters. At this point, it’s fallen and can’t get up. Virtually all the picture’s other cast members — from the generic centurions and generic rabble to the generic king (Xander Berkeley) are straight out of an amateur production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Only, as I say, pretty much nothing funny happens.
So what’s happened to Ramis? Maybe his mojo simply wasn’t a good match for Apatow’s. Maybe he needs to stick to playing with others his own age. Maybe he needs to hold off on the herb until after watching the dailies — who can say? He’s been around a long time, however, and this is his first major misstep. I have every confidence he’ll regroup and achieve greatness once again. Here’s a thought: You’re Harold Ramis. You’ve just made the first flop of your career. You want to prove you’ve still got it. Who you gonna call?
The name Bill Murray comes to mind.