Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are outcasts. The former because he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the latter because, well, he’s the token sensitive guy (read: pansy). As hunter-gatherers, their primary objective is, according to Oh, to “find all the food with the least amount of bird shit on it.” A notable observation in an otherwise relatively bland film.
The story centers around Oh and Zed’s expulsion from the tribe and their subsequent effort to rescue Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), respectively Zed and Oh’s crushes, from the Romans. It’s a fairly standard Comic Journey of Enlightenment Movie—With Sidekick and Women Who Serve No Other Purpose than to be Lusted After. This raises some questions. Chiefly, how is it that Harold Ramis, writer and director of the endearingly humorous and simultaneously perceptive Groundhog Day, could only do so much here?
Let’s ignore for a second the historical jumble of periods. Granted, there’s some 500 years of history packed into one when we jump from a random hunter-gatherer tribe to the horticultural Cain and Abel using wheel technology—but if only Dramamine had been invented, then to the Romans and to their eventual overthrow by villagers rather than the Vandals in 476 CE, and the odd inclusion of jokes about female armpit hair while simultaneously sporting flawless dental hygiene. But nevermind. The problem is not the historicity, or lack thereof, in a comedy, but the uneven pace of the humor.
Take for instance The Hangover, which for all its pratfalls and lowbrow humor maintains a consistent level of comedy throughout. But for a few funny lines—mostly Cera’s, an abruptly abandoned gem of a character in Bill Hader’s Shaman, and the deliciously hedonistic High Priest, rapturously portrayed by Oliver Platt, we are left to return to center stage with Jack Black. Black is perhaps the least funny actor I have seen since Rob Schneider. He lacks subtlety, or at least the sensibly-paced buildup to manic hysteria that was mastered by Belushi, oft imitated, albeit poorly, by successors (the late Chris Farley comes to mind).
In one scene, where Black is examining feces to apply his self-professed tracking skills, he goes over the top licking the fake poop. Note how Cera, whose understated muttering is almost now a cliché of every Apatow film (including this one), at least deftly undercuts Black’s full-on mania quietly, “What difference does it make?” What can the dietary habits of an animal tell them about where they, or the story for that matter, need to go next?
While the film entertains, lightly so (I see a Netflix rental in your future), it doesn’t go where Ramis is capable of venturing. There’s potential for a conversation about the absurdities of virgin-sacrificing agricultural civilizations versus the economy of tribal living which would make Daniel Quinn proud, but this thoughtful discourse never takes place. Am I reaching here? I don’t think so. Comedy has always been a vehicle for getting away with subversive social commentary. There are instances where writer/director Ramis pays obvious reverence to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but seems entirely unaware of why the latter were hilarious. The Monty Python sketches and films were brilliant not because of their use of slapstick, but due to relevant social commentary that, unfortunately for contemporary Americans mired in an ever declining media haze, required a working knowledge of some sociopolitical history. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics and religion, and the Python troupe exploited the hell out of this fact.
It could be possible Ramis had a better film in mind and the studio was eager to steer him into base humor appealing to the least common denominator. We can’t know exactly who to blame, but there are moments where you think they made the mistake of letting Jack Black ad lib some of his lines. Forget it. The man isn’t funny. Humor requires the juxtaposition of diametrically opposed elements or situations to build tension and then release. Bill Murray is an expert at this, because he’s so deadpan you can never be sure of the intention behind his words. No such adept talent exists in this film to elevate it from pablum.
Year One • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 100 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence. • Distributed by Columbia Pictures