Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2009

Bizarro comedy

Something tells me Ramis and Co. would like a second chance at 'Year One'

Year One
Columbia Pictures
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, June Diane Raphael, Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt and Olivia Wilde
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Opened June 19, 2009
(out of four)

Now here is a movie that truly defies the odds. It's a modern wonder. An anomaly. A mathematical improbability.

Year One has an embarrassment of riches at its disposal. The cast, the director, the writers, the producer. Together they've been responsible for some of the best comedies of this generation and generations past.

And somehow, against all logic, this is what they've come up with - a misfire of such proportion, it defies categorization or explanation. It's the little movie that couldn't. What it boils down to is that it's not funny. The ideas aren't funny. The jokes aren't funny. The comic setpieces aren't funny. The performances aren't funny. It plays like 90 minutes of footage that was meant to be left on the cutting-room floor.

Surely, in the midst of all this talent, something worthwhile could be salvaged, right? Well, not really, which is what makes Year One so perplexing. Writer/director Harold Ramis and his co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg basically had a blank slate to work with - a chalk outline combining ancient human history and biblical lore. And with a cast full of gifted comic and improvisational actors, what could go wrong?

Yet somehow, no one could think of any better ideas than having Jack Black eat bear droppings or Michael Cera being forced to rub oil into the impossibly hairy chest of an effeminate guard in the city of Sodom. From the very beginning, you can feel something has gone horribly wrong. From one scene to the next, it's as if the filmmakers went with the first idea anybody came up with and casually moved on.

We see historical references or scenarios that we recognize, only to be disappointed by the fact that no one has any idea what to do with them. We'll get a perfunctory set-up, a bad joke or two, and then, "OK, we're done, on to the next scene!"

We happen upon Abraham (Hank Azaria) about to sacrifice his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, or McLovin') on Mount Moriah - surely that's ripe for comedy! Except . . .well, they got nothin'. The entire movie is like bracing for an explosion or an earthquake. By the time we realize nothing's going to happen, we just feel stupid.

Why haven't I touched on the plot? Because it doesn't matter anyway. You could take a movie with the exact same plot and the exact same structure and make a fantastic movie. Pull the talent files of the people working on Year One and it reads like a catalogue of Awesome. Arrested Development. Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters. The Office. The Simpsons. Superbad. Knocked Up. National Lampoon's Vacation. Mr. Show. High Fidelity. School of Rock.

Those are astounding credentials - and Year One is the astounding result.

It's a pretty sad indictment when a film's funniest moment comes during the outtake portion of the credits - in this case, it's co-star Bill Hader's spot-on Daniel Plainview impersonation. He nails it. Comedy gold. Too bad it's an hour-and-a-half too late.

Honestly, you couldn't blame Ramis if he'd decided to take on the "Alan Smithee" moniker this time around. In fact, maybe everybody could have done it together - like hockey players growing playoff beards. You'd be watching the movie and think to yourself, "Hey, is that Michael Cera? He was awesome in Arrested Development." "No," your friend would inform you, "apparently it's someone named Alan Smithee. But I can see the resemblance."

The saving grace of Year One is that we're guaranteed to see better work from every single person involved. And on those glorious days when that guarantee is fulfilled, we will appreciate them all the more.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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