I don’t like writing negative reviews under the best of circumstances. Like, when something’s a really easy target and people are piling on, that’s no fun to me. And when I hate something and I’m totally on my own in just how much something makes me recoil (“Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian”), that’s no fun, either. I know some people practically live for the bad reviews, who seek out bad movies to give bad reviews to, and I can appreciate the sport of it. It’s just not my thing.
So imagine my discomfort writing what I’m afraid I have to. Full disclosure: I visited the set of this one, and I spent a day hanging out with Harold Ramis, who couldn’t have been any more open and inviting about having me on the set. I was by myself… it wasn’t a group thing. It was just me and Harold Ramis and Hank Azaria and Chris Mintz-Plasse and his folks, and of course, Jack and Michael. I’d met everyone there before, except for Harold, and I was in pretty much total awe of him. I was an SCTV addict when it was on NBC in the ’70s and ’80s. I taped them all, and I studied them. I watched them over and over. I was fascinated by the comic rhythms of SCTV. It was so unlike “Saturday Night Live,” so unlike what I’d seen of TV comedy. And I’d seen Harold on SCTV, of course, and in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” which I thought was one of the ten best films of the ’80s. I think “Groundhog Day” is amazing. I quite liked “The Ice Harvest” recently. Seriously… I’m a fan. He even spent the start of a recent interview with Capone over at Ain’t It Cool talking about the visit, which makes me doubly uncomfortable with not liking the end result.
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So spending time with him on a comedy set, watching him work with Azaria to try and make him comfortable, watching how he handled Jack and Michael differently, as you would of course need to. I was impressed by the atmosphere. I was impressed by the freedom he gave Hank to play around and try to find the right pitch at which to play his part. Honestly, it was one of the best set visit afternoons I’ve ever had, just because Harold Ramis was so approachable and so easy to talk to about his craft and movies in general.
I repeat… one of my favorite afternoons on a film set ever. I wrote about it in a “One Thing I Love Today” article on AICN right afterwards.
Having said that. “Year One” is a near-total disappointment, a collection of very funny people directed by a legendarily funny man, and it never manages to sustain any momentum from joke to joke or scene to scene or even shot to shot at times. The film feels pared down from something much bigger, but based on what’s still in the film, I’m not asking for a longer director’s cut.
I don’t think the film is a “terrible” film. I think the film is an indifferent film. To pull off a movie like this, with a tone this arch and wild, you have to be able to take this barrage of guest stars and this episodic structure and still somehow tie it all together and make it consistent, and “Year One” never manages to do that. There are moments, here and there, and some of the cast seems to know what they’re doing, like Oliver Platt, whose High Priest is a marvel of grotesquerie. But the film is too uneven as a comedy, and part of what makes me laugh is when I really get into a rhythm in a comedy. It’s why some of the Cheech and Chong movies works and some of them don’t. Some of them have a pulse, and some of them don’t. And “Year One,” despite a few laughs and smiles and some decent character work, just doesn’t have a pulse. As a narrative, it’s a disaster. Things just stop or they’re forgotten, and it feels butchered, like the whole thing is leftover footage from something else. I could overlook the script issues if it was at least consistently funny, or if I felt like it took chances in the comedy, but so much of this is familiar… check out the first fifteen minutes, full of caveman jokes so old they’re moldy… that I don’t think it even works as just a collection of sketches.
What’s strange is that you can feel a better film lurking just under the skin of this one. It’s obvious that Ramis has something on his mind here, and he seems to want to comment on religion and faith and other genuinely interesting topics. But so much of the film is so base and so simple… and again… I certainly think outrageous can be funny. But “Year One” isn’t outrageous. It’s just uneven, and occasionally juvenile. My favorite line is still in the stuff I saw when I was onset that one day, a Michael Cera line about how he saved someone’s life. And it’s a loooooooong wait to get to that moment.
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