Dir: Harold Ramis. US. 2009. 96 mins.

The big, blustery physical comedy of Jack Black makes for an amusing fit with Michael Cera’s quiet, self-deprecating humour in Year One, a ramshackle buddy picture set partially in ancient-era Sodom which connects best on the strength of its scene-to-scene joke writing.

Taking enormous historic license, Year One displays an airy delight in mixing slightly contemporary mores with a primitive setting, and domestic audiences could reward it with solid business. It does trail in the wake of prehistoric box office disappointment Land of the Lost, however, and positive word-of-mouth could be dented by the rate at which smash comedy hit The Hangover continues to eat up repeat business. Ancillary values should be solid, and the easily sellable hook of the movie’s archaic setting could open up new commercial opportunities in English-speaking territories.

The sooner one surrenders to the spirit of the exercise, the easier it is to appreciate the movie’s solid joke-writing and characterisations.

When oafish hunter Zed (Black) eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge and later accidentally sets fire to his village, he is banished. Reluctantly accompanying Zed out into the wilderness is his reserved, gatherer pal Oh (Cera); left behind are their respective crushes, Maya (Raphael) and Eema (Temple). Discovering that the story of the world’s edge is false, the wandering pair come across Cain (Cross) in the act of murdering his brother, Abel.

Again fleeing, Zed and Oh encounter Abraham (Azaria), who warns them of the sins of the nearby city of Sodom. This sounds like a great place to Zed, and off they go to partake of its pleasures. Once there, they again cross paths with Maya and Eema, who have been sold into slavery, as well as Cain. While Zed tries to devise a plot to free the ladies, Oh fends off the advances of the king’s creepy, flamboyant high priest (Pratt).

Though targeting some of the same subjects as Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Mel Brooks’ sprawling History of the World: Part One, Year One is a more assertively a hodgepodge of different eras, in this case mixing polytheism alongside Judeo-Christian Biblical stories separated by hundreds of years. Trying to hold onto and make any sense of the chronological narrative is akin to swimming into a head current. It doesn’t help, either, that the movie can’t seem to decide whether Zed and Oh are accidental masters of their fate (upon arriving in Sodom, they briefly become royal guards), or habitual victims of circumstance and their surroundings.

The sooner one surrenders to the spirit of the exercise, the easier it is to appreciate the movie’s solid joke-writing and characterisations.

Co-writers Stupnitsky and Eisenberg worked on the American TV version of The Office and their experience shows, as when Cain declares, “You know the best part about Sodom? The sodomy.” This is in keeping with the movie’s overall tone, in which many of the more outrageous jokes - including admissions of incest and Abraham’s touting of his grand new idea, circumcision - occur in quick verbal exchanges, or off-screen. The few toilet-humour gags come across as a weary pandering to an imaginary adolescent male target demographic. They are neither very inspired, nor do they fit cogently within the narrative.

Ramis has enough means at his disposal to give the film’s Sodom set pieces some small measure of scope, but he otherwise he trims the sails and keeps things tightly shot and briskly paced. Refreshingly, the movie’s good lines don’t all go to Black and Cera, and the bit players respond with some memorable moments.

The lead performances certainly don’t differ wildly from the personas the two actors have cultivated; Black plays a libidinal, instinctive chatterbox, while Cera trades in wallflower asides and nervous, awkward silences. There’s a freshness to their interplay, however, which perhaps has to do with their physical differences, which Ramis sometimes emphasises.


Production companies

Ocean Pictures

Apatow Company Productions

Worldwide distribution

Columbia Pictures/SPRI


Harold Ramis

Judd Apatow

Clayton Townsend


Harold Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg, based on a story by Harold Ramis


Alar Kivilo

Production designer

Jefferson Sage

Art director

Richard Fojo


Craig P. Herring

Steve Welch


Theodore Shapiro

Main cast

Jack Black

Michael Cera

Oliver Platt

David Cross

Christopher Mintz-Plasse

June Diane Raphael

Juno Temple

Olivia Wilde

Vinnie Jones

Hank Azaria

Xander Berkeley