Movie Review: Michael O'Sullivan on 'Year One' - Say Ugh!

Jack Black and Michael Cera star in this comedy as hunter-gatherers who embark on a road trip of sorts after being banished from their village. Video by Columbia Pictures
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

"Year One," to paraphrase the Geico car insurance ads, is humor so simple even a caveman will appreciate it. Correction: Make that only a caveman.

The knuckle-dragging comedy about a pair of primitive hunter-gatherers (Jack Black and Michael Cera) who somehow find themselves wandering through the biblical book of Genesis never rises above, oh, about crotch level. It's unevolved, unapologetic and mostly unfunny.

When the id-driven hunter Zed (Black) and the more sensitive gatherer Oh (Cera) first emerge from the forest primeval, after being expelled from their village for accidentally torching it, whom should they meet but brothers Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd). At that point, it actually looked like this thing might be going somewhere, if only as a loosey-goosey satire of the Old Testament, seen through the eyes of two witnesses who appear to have been born several millenniums before Adam and Eve. But then Rudd, one of the most charming actors working in comedy today, gets his adorable face bashed in.

That's only the first miscalculation from writer-director Harold Ramis, who, with co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, has fashioned a movie with grade-school intellectual aspirations, but one that is far too vulgar for all but the oldest teens. One of the crudest PG-13 movies in recent memory, "Year One" had to be edited down from its original R rating, but it's hard to imagine what was trimmed. The film is still full of so many jokes about excretory functions, erections, circumcision, the loss of virginity and sodomy -- yes, our heroes soon find themselves in the city that gave deviant sex a bad name -- that it boggles the mind to think what will be restored when the inevitable uncut version comes out on DVD.

None of this is particularly surprising, considering that "Year One" comes courtesy of Apatow Productions, the company that brought you "Pineapple Express" and other raunch-fests. But what's missing is the sweetness that characterizes the best of those Judd Apatow-sanctioned comedies. For much of the film, Cera looks genuinely embarrassed to be caught on camera subjecting himself -- and us -- to what the script calls for (including a scene in which, chained upside down to a dungeon wall, Oh urinates profusely on his own face). Of this first-century odd couple, only Black throws himself wholeheartedly into the work. Even in a gross-out scene where, in an effort to prove himself the consummate hunter, he analyzes the contents of a lump of feces he finds on the ground the old-fashioned way: by eating it.

But while Oh alone has the good sense to be mortified by these shenanigans, it's the more Neanderthal Zed who's the idea man here. That is, if arranging for Oh and himself to get, er, lucky with Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), two comely fellow villagers who have been sold into slavery in Sodom, can be called an idea.

It's more of a drive, actually. Base though it may be, it's the single-minded focus that propels "Year One," lurchingly, from one hit-or-miss black-out sketch to another. You'll laugh at some of them, groan at others. If you don't find something funny, give it a minute. Another crass gag will be along shortly, with all the subtlety -- and the lingering soreness -- of a club over the head.

Year One (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude language, comic violence and copious sexual and bathroom humor.

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