The Last Picture Show: Harold Ramis’ Year One, by Craig Schroeder
The Last Picture Show is a recurring Battleship Pretension column that reviews and examines the last films of a given director, actor, cinematographer, etc. as a means of exploring their filmography as a whole.
When I began writing this column a few months ago, I was operating under an unspoken axiom that the films covered would complement the person’s overall legacy (granted, the second installment of this column was Wes Craven’s Scream 4, by no means a seminal masterpiece, but a film that certainly reaffirms Wes Craven’s earlier success). But in hindsight, that’s far too obtuse, giving the notion that a filmmaker is only as good as his or her most recent offering. For the sake of this column, I think it’s imperative to discuss how a cinematic legacy is affected (or not) by an outright awful adieu. Enter 2009’sYear One, an incoherent mess brimming with half-baked bits that are as distasteful as they are lame. It is also the final directorial effort of the late Harold Ramis.
Probably conceived as a transgressive, irreverent retelling of Judeo-Christian mythos, most of Year One is as subtle, funny and ideologically insightful as a college freshman wearing a “Who Farted?” t-shirt, drunkenly paraphrasing Nietzsche. Jack Black and Michael Cera play Zed and Oh, two cavemen/Neanderthals (despite the film’s title, the exact era of civilization depicted is surprisingly unclear) who leave their primitive tribe to discover the burgeoning world outside which consists almost entirely of Old Testament characters. They encounter Cain (David Cross), Abel (Paul Rudd), Abraham (Hank Azaria), Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and numerous other biblical characters (including a cameo from Ramis himself). For a film that sees Jack Black willfully eat fecal matter, Michael Cera publicly stoned with a eunuch’s calcified testicle and Oliver Platt constantly rubbing his own impossibly hairy breasts, Year One’s biggest offense isn’t how off-putting or gross it is (and it is very off-putting and gross) but that it simply can’t find the funny in large swaths of outlandish situations.
Year One’s narrative structure is loose, held together by the film’s central premise, allowing Zed, Oh and the story itself to hop from various disjointed biblical sketches. The structure is not unlike Vacation or Caddyshack (but perhaps most like Ramis’ 2000 remake of Bedazzled starring Brendan Fraser at the peak of his “powers”), built around a unifying premise that allows buffoonery to occur within specific vignettes. But unfortunately, most of Year One revolves around revolting gags nearly devoid of actual jokes. Harold Ramis—the man who conceived the “DOODY!” scene in Caddyshack—is not reluctant to wallow in the juvenile or scatological. Nor is he averse to outright silliness. But Ramis’ career has been defined by a deft blend of silliness and dry, biting humor (albeit, much of that can be contributed to Bill Murray). But Year One doubles down on the silly and the profane, while forgoing almost all intellect. Among broader, cringe-inducing bits (the nadir of which sees Michael Cera urinating into his own face), the film tries to skewer religion by amping up the absurdity while forgoing comedic tact. What remains are a series of increasingly gross-out stunts where the comedy comes only from the audacity of the disgusting gag (which, as it turns out, isn’t all that audacious).
And while Ramis’ fingerprints can be found within Year One, the film’s gravest injustice is a lack of comedic perspective. Much of his career deconstructed typical male, suburban experiences by inserting atypical mockery, confronting banality or tradition with noble buffoonery. Like Vacation, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day and Animal House (the last only written by Ramis), Year One is a conscious intersection of low brow humor with highbrow society in an attempt to yield a heroic schlub that bucks against trends of normalcy (perhaps the Ramis penned Back to School is the best example of the lovable, obnoxious dolt). But Year One lacks the jokes, the intelligence, and, above all, the central comedic focus of Ramis’ earlier career, hoping that inserting two prominent goof-balls into a gonzo premise would somehow make the comedy rise to the surface. Without quality comedy, the themes that worked so well in Ramis’ past feel hollow and without merit.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (which history has rightfully been much kinder to than its initial release would suggest) was the inaugural post for this column. A film that harnessed all of Kubrick’s cinematic power and peculiarities into a singular coup de ’tat, Eyes Wide Shut confirmed his status as an auteur. But what does an abysmal denouement mean for Harold Ramis’ legacy? Much of Ramis’ late career saw a number of critical and financial flops. Between 1993’s brilliant Groundhog Day and Year One in 2009, Ramis made only one film (the aggressively mediocre Analyze This) that didn’t splat on the Tomato-Meter. And despite a lack of recent critical success, his oeuvre as a director, writer and performer remains one of comedy’s most endearing filmographies. Year One is bad. But in all likelihood it will be remembered only as an oddity, a peculiar footnote when discussing Harold Ramis’ profound impact on cinematic comedy.