In the 2003 New York Times article “The Tyranny of the Standing Ovation,” playwright Arthur Miller explains modern audiences’ overeager approbation: “I guess the audience just feels having paid $75 to sit down, it's their time to stand up…I don't mean to be a cynic but it probably all changed when the price went up." So if you go to Year One--and there but for the grace of God go you--you’ll understand if you hear any guffaws. “Well, we drove all the way down here; we might as well laugh.”
A lot of talent collectively lays an egg with this Biblical comedy, beginning with writer-director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) and his co-writers Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg (The Office). Imagine Monty Python’s Life of Brian if it were mild, unfunny and dull, and you begin to get the idea. Under inauspicious circumstances, obnoxious hunter Zed (Jack Black) and put-upon gatherer Oh (Michael Cera) leave their woodland tribe and set out into the world. Having chomped on the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Zed has delusions of grandeur (from being “more intelligent-er” to being “The Chosen One”), while virginal Oh would just like to “lay with” the girl of his dreams.
In episodic fashion, the misfit friends encounter celebrities from the Torah: Cain (Cera’s Arrested Development co-star David Cross) and Abel (an unbilled Paul Rudd), their father Adam (Ramis), Abraham (Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Cera’s Superbad co-star Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and a cast of dozens in legendary sin-city Sodom. There’s not much of a plot, other than Zed and Oh repeatedly bumping into their love interests and trying to save them from slavery. But there’s no shortage of anatomical jokes, scatological jokes, and fart jokes, toilet humor being the last refuge of a spent comedy writer. Or maybe it’s homophobic “humor,” also present in bulk.
The balance of the film’s comedy theory rests on the juxtaposition of modern sensibilities and ancient situations. Oh begs off clubbing and dragging a girl home because his “hut’s a mess,” and Abraham explains, “We are the Hebrews, a righteous people, but not very good at sports.” The clever lines don’t exactly rain down like manna from the desert, though; it’s the wandering and famine that the filmmakers have down. And while the stars struggle valiantly to make the film around them work, the material conspires to defuse Black’s energy and blunt Cera’s subtlety. In a desperate grasp for last-minute goodwill, the producers didn’t even save the bloopers for the DVD; they accompany the end credits.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Sony gives Year One every opportunity to shine in its fully loaded Blu-ray release. Image quality is excellent. The picture is sharply detailed while entirely avoiding any digital artifacts, black level and contrast are very good, and the muted color scheme comes across fine (slightly ruddy skin tones are probably a side effect of color correction). Sound is also maximized in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that delivers as much dynamism as the source material has to offer. Crucially, the dialogue comes through with crystal clarity—the effects and directionality aren't the stuff to show off your system, but they're accurately rendered.
Sony's disc includes the film's original Theatrical Version and an Unrated Version that's approximately three minutes longer. The Blu release also includes the trademarked cinechat feature that enables on-screen instant messaging via BD-Live. Also made possible by BD-Live: The Year One Cutting Room—allowing one to create a unique video using film clips, score and effects and then share it online— and movieIQ, which serves up cast, crew, music and production trivia.
In my humble opinion, the commentary with director Harold Ramis, Jack Black, and Michael Cera is more entertaining than the film itself. Ramis has a tendency to narrate what's on screen, but Black and Cera riff amusingly in their iconic comic modes. The trio addresses the film's reshoots, which are evident in the bonus footage that follows.
The film's outtakes can also be, on occasion, more spontaneous and interesting than the finished feature. The "Alternate Ending--Sodom Destruction" (8:13, HD) comes with optional commentary by Ramis, Black and Cera. Also on hand are two "Deleted Scenes" (4:02, HD) and ten "Extended & Alternate Scenes": "The World Is a Stone" (1:15, HD), "Shaman" (1:56, HD), "Zed's Speech" (2:04, HD), "Cougar" (:52, HD), "Zed & Oh Camp" (1:05, HD), "Dust" (:44, HD), "Lost in the Desert" (2:35, HD), "Stuff to Learn" (:41), "Zed's Plan" (:54), and "Bull's Head" (1:29, HD).
The traditional Judd Apatow feature of "Line-O-Rama" (5:10, HD) isn't exacty sparkling, but it yields a few funny alternate lines; we also get the film's "Gag Reel" (8:28, HD).
Happily, the disc includes a very nice making-of featurette called "Year One: The Journey Begins" (17:52, HD). The doc affords an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the film's New Mexico location shoot, as well as interviews with Black, Ramis, writers Lee Eisenberg & Gene Stupnitsky, costume designer Debra McGuire, David Cross, June Diane Raphael, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, production designer Jefferson Sage, Juno Temple, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Hank Azaria, Xander Berkeley, Oliver Platt, Olivia Wilde, and animal coordinator Bobbi Colorado.
Rounding out the disc are "Sodom's Got 'Em!" (1:52), a surprisingly funny fake commercial promoting Sodom as a career destination; "Leeroy Jenkins: The Gates of Sodom" (2:08, HD), a makeshift short featuring Vinnie Jones and Mintz-Plasse; and "Year One Trailer" (2:17, HD).
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