Maybe it's just a matter of expectations. When Year One opened in June of 2009, it looked to be the can't-miss comedy of the summer. The current King Midas of comedy, Judd Apatow, was producing for his idol, co-writer/director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation). Ramis wrote the screenplay with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, staff writers for the U.S. version of The Office. The picture was fronted by Jack Black and Michael Cera, with an able supporting cast, including David Cross, Hank Azaria, Christopher "McLovin'" Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, and Oliver Platt. The trailer was killer. The concept (though clearly derivative of Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1) was solid. And then it came out, and everyone hated it.
Reviews ranged from mildly disappointed to openly hostile (it sits at 16% at Rotten Tomatoes, and both of the reviews on this site were pretty brutal) and box office was middling; it opened just shy of $20 million, but nosedived to barely $6 million in weekend two, as toxic word of mouth spread. It quickly disappeared from view, and now arrives quietly on DVD and Blu-ray. And here's the thing: It's not that bad.
Don't get me wrong, it's not that great either. A crew of modern comic all-stars should, certainly, be able to put together a picture that is more consistently funny than this one, which runs roughshod over Biblical stories and caveman epics without managing to sustain much in the way of comic ingenuity. Black and Cera play a pair of hunter-gatherers (Black's Zed is a terrible hunter, Cera's Oh is a frustrated, fussy gatherer) in a small village. Zed is cast out of the village after eating the forbidden fruit ("it tastes knowledge-y," he notes), and Oh follows, more out of boredom than anything else. The duo then embarks on a journey that crosses paths with Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and their dream girls from the village (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple), who have been sold to slavery and are on their way to the sinful city of Sodom (lots and lots of sodomy jokes ensue).
Year One is wildly hit and miss, but it is not without laughs (fitful though they may be). Cain and Abel are played by Cross and Rudd; their first scene (Rudd's only one) is pretty funny, and Cross's Cain keeps turning up, sometimes to help out Zed and Oh, more often to sell them out. The pair stumbles upon Abraham (Azaria) at the moment he is about to sacrifice Isaac (Mintz-Plasse) in a burnt offering; challenged for attempting to murder his son, he protests, "We were playing a game. It's called burny burny, cut cut." One of the funniest scenes follows soon after, as Abraham explains circumcision. Cera protests, "Couldn't we pierce our ears or something?" "No, no, no, trust me," Azaria assures him. "This'll be a very sleek look. It's gonna catch on."
Where the picture fails to amuse, and badly, is in its attempts at gross-out humor. An early dip into the murky waters of the scatological is a stomach-churning misfire, and the film's other shots at vulgarity fail just as badly; Ramis shoots this stuff too close up, and lets it go on for too long. This kind of thing is better suggested than explicitly shown--if it must be done at all. In his own directorial efforts, Apatow wisely steers mostly clear of this kind of toilet humor, though that's a message he could push harder on the filmmakers he produces for; here (as in the disappointing Stepbrothers), he forgets that just because you can get away with cheap middle-school raunch, doesn't mean you necessarily should.
Much of that raunchiness comes courtesy of the repellant character played by Oliver Platt, an actor who is frequently very funny (as in Ramis' previous film, the underrated Ice Harvest), but not here. Playing a ribald, cross-dressing high priest decked out in eye make-up and more body hair than Robin Williams, he overplays to a point of distraction. Black and Cera are basically playing their go-to stock types, but they manage to wring a few more laughs out of them; Cera's shy, stuttery delivery may have grown tiresome to some, but not this viewer, and while Black's wild-man schtick has perhaps run its course, his high-energy performance helps to keep things moving along. Even he can't sell the "feel good" ending, however, which lands with a thud and pulls the picture past a 90-minute mark that it shouldn't have breached.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Year One hits HD on a 50GB Blu-ray disc. Contrary to its initial press release, it does not come with a digital copy disc. The film can be viewed in its original theatrical version, or in an unrated cut that runs about three minutes longer (this was the one I chose to view).
Opinions may differ on the quality of the film (okay, my opinion may differ from others on the quality of the film), but there's no arguing that the 1080p transfer (via MPEG-4 AVC) is another first-class piece of work from Sony. The color palate is understandably drab, though there are flashes of vivid saturation when appropriate--the leafy forest near Zed and Oh's village, the burgundy hues of the Sodom interiors, and so on. Detail work is outstanding, from the textures of the period clothing to the scraggly facial hair of Black and others, while wide shots of deserts and canyons are remarkably impressive. The 1.85:1 image is also nicely three-dimensional (most noticeable in a moonlit conversation between Black and Olivia Wilde), and skin tones are warm and natural. Only one minor criticism: some of the blue-tinged night shots are a touch oversaturated. Aside from that, this is an outstanding video presentation.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is surprisingly dense and robust for a comedy; effort is made to really open up the soundstage for the picture's periodic bursts of action, like the Romans' attack on the slave train around the midway mark and an escape scene late in the film. In those sequences, the LFE channel rumbles and directional effects are well-utilized. During quieter scenes, the surround channels are somewhat less active, but environmental sounds are still present and dialogue is crisp, audible, and well-modulated.
DTS-HD MA tracks are also available in French and Portuguese, in addition to a Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish mix. English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
As expected with an Apatow company production, the supplemental materials are plentiful. First up is an Audio Commentary with director Ramis and stars Black and Cera. It's occasionally funny, and all three men are engaging (of course), but too much of it is spent watching and laughing at the movie. Next is the Alternate Ending (8:13), available with or without commentary, an expensive-looking sequence in which Sodom is destroyed. It's kind of interchangeable with the final version in terms of quality, though it does have some closure with the Cain and Abel storyline and a couple of good lines regarding religion.
Only two Deleted Scenes (2:52 and 1:10) made the disc (both are decent), though there are a total of ten Extended and Alternate Scenes (totaling about fifteen minutes); those have occasional good bits (including a longer version of Bill Hader's appearance as the village shaman), though most were wisely cut. The customary Line-O-Rama (5:10), a quick-cut montage of improvised alternate lines, is surprisingly flaccid, primarily because Mr. Black doesn't appear to be much of an improvisationalist (at one point, he just gives up and shouts "Something clever!").
The film proper includes end credit outtakes, so the inclusion of a Gag Reel (8:28) is somewhat redundant, though there are some R-rated flubs and more fun with nearby trains ruining takes. "Year One: The Journey Begins" (17:52) is a pretty standard EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette; it's easily skippable. Same goes for "Sodom's Got 'Em!" (1:52), a faux-TV spot selling the life of a Sodom slave, and "Leeroy Jenkins: The Gates of Sodom" (2:08), an unfortunate parody sequence; neither one is funny. The film's original (very funny) Trailer (2:17) is also included, as are previews for several other Sony titles, including Black Dynamite, Angels and Demons, and The Taking of Pelham 123.
Exclusive for Blu-ray is "The Year One Cutting Room," an interactive feature that lets viewers painstakingly edit sequences from the film with their remote control. Features like these are almost always a better idea on paper than they are in execution; besides, with the advent of iMovie and similar user-friendly interfaces, will anyone actually use something like this? It would seem that would-be editors have plenty of easier ways to hone their skills. Other BD features include BD-Live functionality, an option to watch the film with "Movie IQ" information, and the I-can't-imagine-anyone-actually-using-that option of "CineChat."
Director Harold Ramis and producer Judd Apatow each have several great comedies to their names; make no mistake, Year One ain't one of 'em. But it certainly surpasses its noxious reputation, and may very well provide a few chuckles on a hung-over Sunday afternoon.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.