Year One is a 2009 adventure comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera. The film features a number of very talented comedy actors including Paul Rudd, David Cross, with Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt. Harold Ramis co-wrote and directed. He had a minor cameo role and this film was the final project he worked on before his death in 2014.
As you can see from the above introduction Year One had some incredibly talented people both in front and behind the camera. Harold Ramis was a man that had created some of the biggest films of a generation including Ghostbusters and directed the masterpiece of film making that was Groundhog Day. I was a little surprised to discover that he had directed and co-wrote this film because in all honesty it did not look very good from the trailers. Still, with such a creative man behind the camera and a number of skilled actors in front of the camera I assumed that it would still be decent enough.
The film begins with a tribe of Neanderthals that all look like modern man (naturally). Amongst their number is a man named Zed (Black) who is a hunter, during the hunt for a wild boar he accidently throws his spear into one of his own people, scaring away the boar, much to the chagrin of the other hunters. His best friend is Oh (Cera) who is a gatherer. As gathering is a job generally done by the women Oh has no respect from anyone in the tribe, and has no hope of being with the woman that he wants to lay with Eema (Juno Temple). Zed eats the fruit from the forbidden tree, believing himself to be the “Chosen One” and is banished from the tribe. Initially going alone Oh decides to go with him after Zed accidently burns down the village.
The pair encounter Cain and Able (Cross and Rudd) and witness Cain murdering Able in an act of rage. Cain tells them that if they don’t flee with him then they will be accused of murder, so they are forced to escape Cain’s father. They are later sold into slavery by Cain, and reunite with Eema and Zed’s love interest Maya who left their village after it burned down who are also slaves.
Zed and Oh escape their captors but are unable to free anyone else. They come across Abraham (Azaria) who was planning to sacrifice his son Isaac, but stays his hand when Zed claims to be the Chosen One.
Learning that Maya and Eema are likely in the nearby city of Sodom, Zed and Oh travel there to rescue them...
You should remember that due to the people working on this film that it should be pretty good despite the trailer not really selling it, yet sadly this film was a bit of a jumbled mess that couldn’t live up to its pedigree.
The first major problem is the casting of Jack Black as Zed because Jack Black is good at playing one character, namely Jack Black, and in some circumstances this can work. I liked him in School of Rock and Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny and his voices suits Po from the Kung-Fu Panda series perfectly. Unfortunately his particular acting style only suits certain types of films and Year One is not one of them. In every scene he is in, and I mean every single one he is determined to be the focus, even if the scene isn’t about him. He draws your attention and as a result no one else gets any time to really have any presence as they are all just waiting for him to stop hogging the limelight. It surprising because I would expect a director like Ramis to be able to rein Black’s overzealous performance in to let the other actors and their characters breathe but he doesn’t. Year One is a Jack Black vehicle and whilst I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I found him amusing they were very few and far between.
The other actors do what they can with the limited screen time available to them and both David Cross and Oliver Platt managed to get a few laughs out of me. Platt especially portraying the City of Sodom’s High Priest was a highlight but mainly because he wanted Oh to rub scented oil into his very hairy chest.
It is surprising that with so many good actors most only give a lacklustre performance but this could very well be to do with the fact that Jack Black is drawing all focus to himself so the others don’t figure there is much point bringing their A-game, which is a pity.
The scene transitions are also rather sloppily edited, which two examples of events happing that work up to nothing. Zed and Oh are confronted by a cougar and in a moment of quite impressive ventriloquism from Black, Zed asks if you are supposed to run or stand your ground when confronted by a cougar. He decides to run and the cougar pounces on Oh. The scene immediately cuts to the two of them by a fire with Oh having sustained a few scratches but nothing more serious...er...Year One do you fancy explaining how a skinny wuss of a Neanderthal was able to fight off a cougar whilst only sustaining a few scratches?? This isn’t the only time such a thing happens as Oh is also attacked by a snake that starts to constrict him, once again Zed abandons him, and in the next scene Oh is fine...again, how did he manage to escape a snake that is squeezing the life out of him??
On that point, thinking about it, Zed is quite prepared to leave his friend to die at the hands of a cougar and snake respectively. This isn’t like An American Werewolf in London when David panics as Jack is attacked, runs, but then comes back to help. His loyalty to his friend overrides his fear and panic. Zed on the other hand straight up runs away and leaves his friend to die. Sooooo, why exactly are we supposed to be hoping the guy who is selfishly interested in his own self-preservation gets what he wants??
Naturally what both Zed and Oh want is to have sex with the two most attractive women in their village and somehow both get them despite both Maya and Eema only being in the situation they are in because of the actions of Zed, and a lesser extent Oh. As usual there is no indication of any kind of characterisation for either woman, they are simply the eye candy for our “heroes” to dip their wicks into. There is not enough screen time for either Zed or Oh to have any kind of chemistry with either Maya or Eema.
I do always find it kind of amusing though that sacrificing a virgin can be easily thwarted by having sex with said virgin. Eema and Maya are to be killed at one point, Oh has sex with Eema so she is safe from being sacrificed. There is a Jim Carrey film in which a vampire needs to drink the blood of a virgin to remain youthful and is beaten after Carry’s character has sex with his girlfriend. My point is that if you are a virgin and you don’t want to be sacrificed, grab the nearest guy or girl, fuck the shit out of them and you will be safe from execution.
Year One had the potential to be very funny and a fitting tribute to a great actor, writer and director, sadly it was not so. Like I said a few moments made me laugh and a couple of times Hank Azaria sounded like some of the characters he voices in The Simpsons (mainly Moe) which was amusing. Unfortunately Jack Black eclipses everyone else, and not in a good way. If he’d have given a more subtle performance, or hell someone else had been cast instead, then this film may have worked. Unfortunately it just doesn’t. Glimpses of what Ramis was trying to do are glimpsed, but those glimpses are fleeting, when Black isn’t on screen the others are funny and entertaining. Sadly there are very few moments when Black isn’t one screen.
All in all I have to give Year One a Thumbs Down, it could have been better, however, as it did make me laugh once or twice and crack a few smiles I cannot call it a complete failure. If you want to see Paul Rudd, David Cross, Hank Azaria and so on in better roles then look elsewhere, if you want to see Ramis at his directorial best watch Groundhog Day.
5/10 – A comedy that makes you laugh a few times is better than one that doesn’t make you laugh at all so that is something. It is a real pity that this film didn’t work because it would have served as a fitting final film for Harold Ramis who was a great actor, writer, and director