Year One Review

Citizen Cain
‘Year One’ is better than ‘Wholly Moses’ anyway.

THOUGH IT’S too small for a big screen, Year One’s rigorous close-ups on Jack Black’s face will make this movie play better on TV. The hapless hunter-gatherer named Oh (Michael Cera, the film’s reliable standout), and the second-lowest man in the clan, Zed (Black), are pressured out of the prehistoric tribe for general ineptitude, and because Zed ate one of the apples of the Tree of Knowledge. An inept attempt to shoot one of Abel’s cows cause them to cross the path of Cain (David Cross) just as he’s about to fix his brother for good. They’re forced to flee with Cain from the posse discovering Abel’s murder. After Cain sells them out, Oh and Zed end up as slaves in the sword and sandaled city of Sodom.
Cross brings out a real performance as Cain. The idea of the later adventures of Cain has strange mythic resonance, even in a film this lightweight. Cross is slightly frightening as the film’s mastermind; the lighting-blasted mark on his forehead looks like a really angry case of acne. He keeps turning up unexpectedly, with newer and more treacherous plans. The blonde and bitty Juno Temple as Oh’s love object stands out, too. Though British (she’s Julien Temple’s daughter), she demonstrates a lovely put-upon San Fernando Valley–style squint of disgust every time Oh blinks at her.
And as Zed and Oh head due west out of Eden, they run into characters from Genesis. Hank Azaria’s Abraham is as cleverly modeled on George C. Scott as his mad pharaoh in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was modeled on Karloff. Having Isaac as a snotty brat with a nasal accent is another solid idea; as Isaac, Christopher Mintz-Plasse of Superbad shows that he’s one of the best young comic actors around. High marks of grossness go to Oliver Platt as the fruity high priest of Sodom. Faking his way through a session of augury, he declares the entrails are forming a happy face. It’s a real roll in the ridiculous for Platt, looking like a horny heifer covered with Tammy Faye makeup.
The art direction and costuming are much better than they had to be. And one notes Year One’s free-thinking take on religion. Whether it’s Sodomese flaming-bull worship, Zed’s decision that he is a chosen one or Abraham’s belief that God requires foreskins: in all cases here, spirituality is created by underdogs trying to preserve themselves by creating mysteries that dazzle the slower minds around them.
Black is beyond all underdogism, and that may be where the movie falls apart. Director Harold Ramis, a talented sketch-comedy director, can make individual scenes work. But he can’t make it all come together; action scenes evade him; and his attempts at slapstick are either cruel or soggy. Year One drops stuff when it can’t find a satisfactory resolution—one scene leaves Oh wrapped in a jumbo snake without answer of how he got out of its coils. (No, the end-credit outtakes of Black wrestling the snake don’t explain it. What these outtakes explain is that the scene didn’t work, and they decided to leave it on the cutting room floor.)
Cera is consistently funny, a pale, meek virginal Laurel to Black’s Hardy; but the movie might have worked better with someone less assured than Black. There are a lot of would-be Hardys and Belushis around—the obesity epidemic is creating a lot of them. But Black is at that king-of-the-world stage some comedians arrive at. He’s certain that every face he pulls is funny, and every scene he’s in is his.
Richard von Busack

YEAR ONE (PG-13), directed by Harold Ramis, written by Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, photographed by Alar Kivilo and starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, plays valleywide.

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