Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bruising my religion: Year One shows daring, lacks bite

It’s left ambiguous as to whether the forbidden fruit consumed by portly Paleolithic hunter Zed (Jack Black) near the start of
Year One actually bestow its eaters with divine knowledge. But it’s worth noting that after gobbling these honey-dipped orbs, which resemble Christmas tree ornaments and seem to possess hallucinogenic properties, Zed will question his people’s most deeply rooted beliefs, invent applause, and resolve a riot that threatens to topple Sodom. (He’ll also, apparently, travel through time.) Zed’s exile from his brethren may not lead him to found his promised “Muscle Tribe of Danger and Excellence,” but with the aid of his slight young sidekick Oh (Michael Cera), he will be present for a numerous quasi-historical events such as Cain’s slaying of Abel, the ideation of circumcision, and Abraham’s near-slaying of Isaac, the sacrifice prevented not by God’s intervention but Zed’s. It’s no wonder Oh, encouraged by Zed’s precocious doubts, begins questioning the existence of God altogether.

If Year One focused more on Zed and Oh’s pursuit of skepticism and heresy it may have been more satisfying as a narrative while maintaining it’s good natured, amusingly picaresque tone. (Maybe we could have had a smarter, more entertaining and less condescending version of Religulous.) But writer/director Harold Ramis and co-scripters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have opted to shuffle almost aimlessly from gag to gag, and few of these gags would work at all were it not for the fun duo of Black and Cera, whose pairing invokes a sort of reverse Quixote and Panza, though neither of them seem to break a sweat here. (Maybe they should have let Black sing something. He's got metal hair and everything.) Whether eating shit, nearly getting sodomized by Sodomites, or getting car sick from riding in a donkey-drawn cart that goes slower than pedestrians, there’s a lot that’s almost funny.

Comedy, especially of the dopier variety, is dependent on timing, and I think if Year One fails to generate the desired number of laughs—the audience I watched it with certainly seemed more sedate than one would expect for such fare—it may also simply come down to basic directorial and editorial choices. Judging from the number of scenes that cut out just as something spectacular is ostensibly about to happen—such as Oh getting rescued by Zed from becoming lunch for snakes or cougars—its possible Ramis, rather than being willfully elliptical, simply lacked coverage. Yet it’s just as likely that the coverage he did get just didn’t serve the scenes. There are numerous dialogue sequences comprised of far too many close-ups, and as Ramis keeps cutting from one to another it seemed to me that something in the comedy was getting lost, or at least severely dissipated in the lack of interplay. But its equally true that the brand of comedy that distinguishes Year One may just be too stale for 2009, a sensibility, replete with casual homophobia, so outdated they actually resorted to putting a blooper reel over the credits, a technique that even Jackie Chan has surely abandoned.

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