The new film Year One
is definitely taking a beating from the critics
, especially conservative ones.
Two reviews by my colleagues at Big Hollywood
exemplify the complaints. Comedienne Victoria Jackson expresses immense disappointment
with the film's high proportion of obscenity and vulgarity (she reports that she left the film in tears of frustration and sadness), and John Nolte observes
that it lacks a sensible story line, excessively indulges in its performers' ad libs, manages to have scenes that are both overlong and end too abruptly, has a nonsensical timeline, and is just sloppy and poorly executed overall.
Both of these critics' observations are quite accurate, but I think there's more to this story.
Certainly the film is absurd, disorganized, obscene, and ludicrous. Produced by Judd Apatow and starring the notoriously self-indulgent Jack Black, Year One
could hardly avoid having those characteristics. Harold Ramis has done much better work than this, notably as co-writer of Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Back to School,
and the first couple of seasons of SCTV,
but he also wrote the inept screenplays for stinkers such as Club Paradise, Armed and Dangerous, and
the year 2000 remake of Bedazzled.
Films on which he had the most influence as writer seem to have the poorest scripts.
Hence, expecting a logical, coherent story and some respect for audience sensibilities from Apatow and Ramis seems rather a forlorn hope. Moreover, anarchic comedy of this type can be both funny and somewhat meaningful. As Nolte noted, the film seems to be an attempt in some ways at replicating the breezy narrative style of the "Road" films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
I agree, and would note that while the character played by Jack Black does suggest Hope's "Road" characters, the one played by Michael Cera is more reminiscent of Woody Allen's early film persona. The two characters work well together, as in the classic SCTV sketch "Play It Again, Bob."
The film's silly, illogical timeline and other such features thus accord with a long comedy tradition, and the obscenity is no greater than much of what passes for theatrical film comedy these days (alas!).
And as Nolte correctly observes, the comical references to religion (of which there are many) are clearly meant to be silly, not satirical. In fact, a speech at the end of the film by Jack Black really focuses on politics, not religion, and warns the people of the city of Sodom not to place their faith in political messiahs, advice that applies today as well.
Moreover, in their own mad way the earlier scenes of the film seem quite positive toward monotheistic religion, with Jack Black's character defending religious faith and the idea of an omnipotent, fully benevolent God (as one imagines Bob Hope would in the same circumstances) against the attacks by Cera's character (which one imagines Woody Allen would press in this situation).
There can be no question, however, that the film is chock full of grossness, vulgarity, and an adolescent obsession with bodily functions to an extent that is extraordinary even in today's no-holds-barred theatrical film culture. It's as dirty as a Frenchman, as Homer Simpson would say.
Fixating on this unpleasant subject matter, however, is causing critics to fail to see a perfectly evident meaning of the film: that the monotheist religions are the great source of civilization in human history.
This is the clear conclusion to be drawn from the film if we step back from its stream of ugly events and think about what the narrative actually means. It's essential to note that the protagonists are treated well only by the monotheistic, religious people, the Jews. In their prehistoric home at the beginning of the film both the protagonists are viewed as outcasts, with Black as an inept hunter and Cera a timid, epicene gatherer of nuts and berries. Their life is brutish and unfulfilled, and their fellow tribe members treat them very badly.
In the Biblical city of Sodom, where the characters end up eventually, they are captured, enslaved, beaten, threatened with death, imprisoned, subjected to continual threats of being sodomized, and witness the appalling barbarity, cruelty, and injustice of that pagan society. Whereas the film mines much humor from the uncomfortable reality of adult circumcision among the Jews, in Sodom the people are engaging in regular sacrifices of female virgins, who are burned to death to win favor from their pagan gods.
(One of the film's most successful attempts to bring the Bob Hope attitude into the vulgar contemporary context is Black's observation that a human sacrifice is a waste of a perfectly good virgin.)
The scenes in the city of Sodom depict a society of immense awfulness, and the filmmakers explicitly allude to similarities with the modern-day United States, including a direct reference to Las Vegas when a character observes that what happens in Sodom stays in Sodom. That's an comparison one might expect a from political conservative or the Religious Right.
In Israel, by contrast, where the protagonists are the guests of Adam and then Abraham (yes, the timeline is irrational), they encounter decent hospitality and are treated quite well. Having witnessed Cain's murder of Abel (the motives for which are presented quite accurately, and comically), they are thereafter continually endangered by the world's first murderer, who moves to Sodom and finds the place very much to his liking.
The protagonists' reaction is exactly the opposite. They want nothing more than to get away from that place, while attempting to rescue two female members of their tribe who have been captured and enslaved (which happens to the protagonists as well).
Thus the film clearly depicts non-monotheistic societies as horrible (albeit in varying ways), while connecting these to what is unattractive about contemporary American society, and the monotheistic one as vastly better places to live despite a few comic eccentricities.
Certainly one would wish Year One
to be a good deal less adolescent in its humor and rather more sophisticated in its attempts at wit, but it's also important to recognize what the film actually means behind its preposterous and frequently annoying surface. The wisdom of a fool is nonetheless wisdom, after all.