Friday, June 19, 2009

'Year One:' a collection of hits and misses

"Year One," a new comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, is a spectacular mess, which is another way of saying that the movie offers a variety of haphazard pleasures and silly asides. I arrived at "Year One" with low expectations and was surprised that I enjoyed any of its goofy humor.

Put another way, you can watch "Year One" without wanting to bolt into the lobby and smash your head against the concession stand. This may not sound like high praise, but if you've seen the movie's unimpressive trailer, you know what I mean. Prehistorical life may not be hysterical, but it does make room for some laughs.

Among the movie's better offerings: director Harold Ramis' total disregard for chronological credibility, Cera's guileless looks, which in this context, border on the preposterous, and Oliver Platt's gloriously bizarre turn as the High Priest of Sodom.

Ramis, who has directed such comedies as "Caddyshack," Groundhog Day," and "National Lampoon's Vacation," knows how to handle silly comedy, although he sometimes succumbs to the kind of gross-out demands that have become mandatory in most current comedies. To wit: I could have done without a scene in which Black, as the arrogant Zed, eats what he believes to be human excrement.

Zed's eating habits propel the movie from a prehistoric comedy to biblical spoof. Early on, Zed eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge, a transgression that leads to expulsion from his tribe. Zed and Oh -- Cera's character -- then embark on an adventure that inexplicably brings them into contact with bible stories: Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac, for example.

These episodes are followed by a trip to Sodom, where the movie settles for a mixed bag of comic chaos. At times, Black and Cera come on like a dumbed-down version Hope and Crosby in their road-movie period. But Black has his own style -- bombast mixed with stupidity -- and Cera remains the screen's most engaging nerd. At the outset of the picture, Oh defines himself as a gatherer as opposed to Zed, who's a hunter. Together, they're a ridiculous mix of passive and aggressive tendencies.

The supporting cast seems to have been inspired by Ramis' direction. Notable are Hank Azaria as Abraham, David Cross as Cain and, of course, Platt as the High Priest, a blubbery mass of sybaritic impulses and polymorphous perversity. Hey, what do you expect? He's a big shot in Sodom, not Salt Lake.

Ramis and his fellow screenwriters -- Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg -- seem to be operating without benefit of a game plan and spoofs about religion don't exactly break new ground, but there are enough good bits here to keep the comedy from sinking and rather than indulging himself in an orgy of special-effects, Ramis relies on the skills of some very capable comic actors. Smart choice, even when the comedy is at its dumbest.

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