How lowbrow can you go? You would think cave man humor, which is where writer-director Harold Ramis takes us. Yes, the same Harold Ramis who wrote the screenplays for "Animal House" (1978), "Caddyshack" (1980), "Stripes" (1981), "Ghost Busters" (1984), "Groundhog Day" (1993), and "Analyze This" (1999).
Apparently inspired by Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I" (1981), Ramis tries his hand at Neanderthal and biblical humor, tossing pre-history and Christian mythos into a blender and coming up with a concoction that offers a loser hunter and an effeminate gatherer who are exiled from their tribe and forced to trek across familiar Bible stories.
Jack Black and Michael Cera are well cast as Zed, a portly but lazy hunter who has more excuses than manly strength, and Oh, a soft-spoken peacenik who's been relegated to being a gatherer with the women. When the hunters return and one knocks the basket out of Oh's hand, his response is only an indignant, soft-spoken "Well, there won't be any berries in the fruit salad now, so we all lose." And when the always horny, never satisfied non-Alpha male Zed later encounters a beautiful woman, he says, "Sorry, I wasn't listening. All my brain blood was in my boner." Though it's rated PG-13, I have to tell you that I wouldn't be comfortable watching it with a 13 year old. There's crude and sexual content throughout, along with strong language (at least one F-word) and humor that's often dependent upon sexual innuendo and circumcision gags.
But some of the funniest moments come from comedy of character as we watch them trying to survive-as when, taken slaves by an advanced, warlike culture that feels like a little Hittite, a little Babylonian, and a lot of Roman, Cera's character has to give an oil rubdown to a high priest (Oliver Platt) who has more chest hair than an ape. Clearly, even the biblical characters were evolving, but it's Cera's expressions and characteristic deadpan that makes the scene work. Not all scenes do, and for whatever reason, Ramis was so enamored of the town of Sodom that he just couldn't bear to have his subjects leave. And that's where the film bogs down a bit, with the narrative dragging and the jokes sagging. For me, it's the scatological humor . . . literally that produces more "ewww" than yuks.
But in the world of lowbrow comedies there's dumb and dumber, with the latter being so stupid that you just can't bear to watch any longer. That's not the case here. As silly or insipid as the jokes get, "Year One" isn't so bad that you want to hop in your Blu-ray time machine and fast forward to another period and another movie. For that give credit to the stars and the production values, because as we wait between jokes, the sets and costumes are lavish and interesting enough to keep us moving.
In the absence of consistently funny "zingers," it's the picaresque nature of the film early on that holds our interest. At first it's wondering what spin Ramis will put on cave man culture, but once Zed decides to take a bite from the forbidden fruit and the next stop is a pair of squabbling brothers named Cain and Abel, it's that "I wonder what they'll do next" impulse that keeps you watching--the same kind of rolling narrative dynamic that made us smile as we watched Forrest Gump turn up in one major cultural or historical event after the next. But alas, all that comes to a halt once the pair reaches Sodom. Even the he/she storylines tend to veer a little off-course, as Zed's fantasy-woman Maya (June Diane Raphael) kind of drops out of sight for a while and the woman of Oh's dreams, Eema (Juno Temple), turns up in a few scenes that only remind us that the women have ended up in Sodom too. I can't help but think that if Ramis had kept his Geico duo moving he would have been inspired to come up with an ending that didn't fizzle the way this one does. Thank the God of Abraham for end-credit bloopers that quickly pull us out of a "huh?" funk.
Minor characters really don't have much of a presence, with Olivia Wilde ("The O.C.") given more air time but still unable to transcend the usual princess tropes. Only Platt's High Priest has the kind of quirky presence and energy that this film could have used more of. "Year One" is presented in both the 97-minute theatrical version and a 100-minute "unrated edition," which adds three minutes of gross gags.
In 1080p, though, "Year One" looks awesome. The natural world looks sharp as a briar, and the desert towns have none of the sandy grain and atmospheric indistinctiveness that we normally get--perhaps because Ramis shot on locations and sets in New Mexico and Louisiana. Colors in Sodom are bright and bold, with perfect black levels and a pleasing three-dimensionality and level of detail. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer was a good one, with zero process flaws. "Year One" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it fills out the entire screen of a 16x9 monitor.
The audio isn't as impressive. I don't know if this will be a trend, but Sony, which has been going with a Dolby TrueHD, has abandoned that in favor of a DTS-HD MA 5.1 featured soundtrack in English, French, or Portuguese. But "Year One" isn't a special effects title. It's mostly dialogue, and mostly a front-heavy soundtrack. When God speaks there's a little thunder in the rear speakers, but don't look for a lot of movement or sonic dynamism. That said, there's no distortion and a clear, precise delivery of dialogue throughout.
Apart from the commentary, I wasn't terribly impressed by the bonus features. But I will say that the deleted scenes are more fun than usual. The Blu-ray features a substantial (eight-minute) alternate ending of Sodom's destruction that seems too easy but actually feels better to me than the feel-good option that Ramis went with. Then there are two more deleted scenes and 10 extended scenes. Closely related is "Line-o-Rama," in which the actors ad lib for laughs in a blooper reel of sorts that runs around five minutes.
Black and Cera team up with Ramis for an enjoyable commentary track--one of the best I've listened to over the past year because it's not all fun and games. Ramis also makes sure that it's a lesson in filmmaking, while still allowing his stars to cut up so we're entertained in the process.
Then there's "Year One: The Journey Begins," which is a fairly standard making-of feature that runs a little under 20 minutes. The rest of the bonus features are slight, as far as I'm concerned. There's a trailer, a goofy in-character TV commercial for Sodom, and an equally goofy "The Gates of Sodom" that run just two minutes each.
As for Blu-ray exclusives, there's a BD-Live hook-up in which you're able to choose scenes from the film, edit them in the order you wish, add music, then share with friends. I'm no fan of BD-Live, but for Internet movie junkies this feature seems a little more creative and fun than what I've seen in the past. But of course it's still movie promo via social networking, so it serves Sony more than it serves audiences. Then there's CineChat online which basically is a text box onscreen that allows viewers to talk to each other while the movie is playing. I don't know. Call me old-fashioned, but what happened to going to the movies together? And if someone is far away, can't you pick someone nearby to go to the movies with? Rounding out the Blu-ray exclusives is movieIQ, a "real-time" in-move information about the cast, crew, music, and production. But here again I don't get it. I mean, we're not talking about a political election where the facts change hourly. It seems another artificial use of the Internet connection. I mean, does anyone really think that these folks didn't know all of this info before the disc went to press? It could just as easily have been placed on a Profile 1.1 pop-up trivia track so that more people could enjoy it, rather than limiting it to the Profile 2.0 users. And not every Profile 2.0 stand-alone unit owner will have his/her Blu-ray player connected to the Internet. So I remain unimpressed by Sony's love-affair with BD-Live.
"Year One" is fun in places, and funny in others . . . just enough to keep you watching, though there are probably as many groaners as there are genuine laughs. If anything, "Year One" proves that, once more, the Bible proves to be a tough comedic sell. Only Monty Python's "Life of Brian" managed to pull it off, but this one is destined to take its place alongside films like "Evan Almighty" and "Wholly Moses!"