In the beginning was High Fidelity, at least as far as I’m concerned. An actor I’d never noticed before by the name of Jack Black was channeling Generation X energies like nobody else on the silver screen. His Barry, the record-store slacker-snob, stole the show and left me with the firm conviction that a new genius would star in the great comedies of the immediate future.
I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every appearance of Jack Black since then, with the exception of the execrable The Holiday. But I’ve given up waiting on that great Jack Black comedy. He has enough talent to be always enjoyable, but more than enough to make one feel he’s squandering it on mediocre material. So, when I went to see Harold Ramis’s Year One, a light send-up of Biblical history, about the inept hunter Zed (Black) and the dreamy gatherer Oh (Michael Cera), I expected to chuckle, have a good time, and find the movie nonetheless disappointing. It turns out I am an inspired prophet.
Now I’m starting to feel the same way about Michael Cera. He seems to be channeling masterfully the energies of a younger generation, and he stole the show in Superbad and Juno. Unfortunately, now he seems to be starring in movies that fall short of being memorable, like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist and now Year One.
Still, the chemistry between Black and Cera as Zed and Oh is terrific: Black’s way of doubling down on double-takes blends wonderfully with Cera’s strangely assertive way of being meek. But the movie is essentially like a decent Saturday Night Live sketch that happens to be an hour and a half long. Zed and Oh strike off from their caveman tribe and wander in and out of Biblical stories. They witness Cain slaying Abel, stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and wind up, appropriately, in Sodom, for what mainly drives them is the desire to lay with some babes from their tribe. There are two varieties of humor in the movie: the incongruous (as when Abraham declares, “We are Hebrews, a righteous people, not very good at sports”) and the potty (as when Oh, hanging upside down in chains, pees all over his face). Both pretty funny.
But the movie lacks bite, which a comedy about the Bible really should have. The sublime example is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the charming working title of which was Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. There’s nothing in Year One that perfectly crystallizes centuries of Biblical interpretation like the scene in Brian at the Sermon on the Mount. At the back of the crowd Mrs. Gregory, who is having troubles hearing Jesus, asks, “What did he say?” A spectator replies, “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” Mrs. Gregory: “Oh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Gregory: “It’s not supposed to be taken literally; it’s meant to refer to anyone who works in the dairy industry.”
There’s one scene in Year One that’s practically lifted from Life of Brian, though drained of all humor. It takes place at the end of the movie, when Jack Black, who has saved the day and has the crowd of ancient Sodomites chanting that he’s the chosen one, proclaims to the crowd that they should all think of themselves as being chosen; then everything ends happily.
In Mel Brooks’s History of the World, another venerable ancestor of Year One, we are presented in hushed awe with “the world’s first artist,” who finishes a painting on a rock. Then we’re presented with “the world’s first critic,” who walks up to the painting and pisses all over it. Some things never change.