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© Columbia Pictures

Olivia Wilde and Jack Black stumble their way through Year One.

Year One

Save your cash for the coming blockbusters, because this one’s a timewaster.

reviewed by Mark Burns

A hunter and a gatherer stumble out of the woods and into Biblical history in this lame comedy.

Zed (Jack Black: Tropic Thunder) and Oh (Michael Cera: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) are misfits in their dung-and-stick village: Hunter Zed is a Jack Black-esque overzealous twit, and gatherer Oh is a Michael Cera-like wisp of wishy-washy. When Zed’s nosh on the forbidden fruit gets him banished, the pair hike over the edge of the Earth (a mountain range) and discover a wider world, falling in with Cain (David Cross) — after witnessing his murder of Abel — and questing to Sodom to save their former tribe from slavery.

Writer/director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack) seems to be trying for an Americanized Old Testament counterpart to the cult classic Life of Brian. As in Monty Python’s faux messiah spoof, highlights of the Judeo-Christian back-story have been dragged down and demystified by earthy perspective shift, plainspeak revisionism and cheeky skepticism. In Year One this includes forbidden fruit as placebo; Abraham as a religious eccentric who’s overeager to establish the mohel tradition; and a Sodom twist on Vegas’ slogan. To make the movie’s underpinnings more obvious, Ramis draws a direct parallel to Brian by passing off Zed as a mistaken “chosen one” touting free thought.

Sadly, there is no flattery in this imitation.

The Monty Python troupe succeeded with Life of Brian by blending silliness with intelligent satire. This flick has its moments, and its slapstick is pretty fun up front. But ultimately the fun flops. Humor wears thin when gags are dwelled on with interminable, repetitive banter that’s hardly snappy enough to warrant the label. Jokes tend to be uninventive, sophomoric and/or predictable. Even some scenes that should have worked are executed so clumsily that the comic effect is lost. The Sodom portion especially is a giant failed joke, calling to mind Conan, Mel Brooks and Apocalypto all while introducing its own creepy, near-homophobic vibe. It’s not so great.

Even the straightforward story is choppily told. The quest is too much of a wandering shamble to hold interest, merely staggering from one Biblical figure/locale to the next and not doing much at the destinations. The questers fall prey to distraction at the drop of a hat, and the connective thread of Cain’s guiding influence is weak. Performances suffer as well. Black and Cera don’t seem to click, and the broader cast of comics, from Hank Azaria to that McLovin guy, seem to just be punching time cards.

Save your cash for the coming blockbusters, because this one’s a timewaster. Fans in love enough with Jack Black to claim Nacho Libre was good might have fun. Anybody else would do better to rent the poorly imitated Python opus.

Poor comedy • PG-13 • 97 mins.

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You’ll get a a few irreverent laughs from Sandler’s attempt to confront crisis with comedy

reviewed by Mark Burns

The heart of Middle East conflict has never appeared so stupid. Which is both good and bad.

Zohan (Adam Sandler: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) is a superstar Mossad commando. Think Chuck Norris meets Leslie Nielsen meets Superman meets Menudo. Though Israel adores him for his antiterrorist kick-assery, he’d much rather ditch the senseless violence to pursue his true passion: making the world “sexy smooth” through hairstyling. So he ditches the Holy Land and Palestinian arch-nemesis The Phantom (John Turturro: Transformers) for a jet to New York City. On arriving, Zohan discovers a blended neighborhood and learns to step across the divide to meet Palestinians in friendship as he pursues his life’s passion. But happiness may be forfeit as his past catches up.

The ensuing nonsense revels in the high stupidity of Sandler’s more typical comedy. Surprisingly, though, this film strives to exceed the scope of its slapstick to humanize both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict and trumpet the cause of peace.

Impatience with the conflict takes center stage as Sandler tackles the crisis and its players with strikingly direct lampoon. Israel is portrayed as the place where outdated American cool goes to die; an Israeli officer guilts Zohan into assignment by woefully promising high collateral damage otherwise; The Phantom is a hip-hop-lite folk hero who cashes in on his fame in a most American way; and the clash of societies is boiled down to a farcical grudge match full of Heroes-meets-slapstick impossibilities. Stateside, intolerant rednecks are locked in the crosshairs. Occasionally the gags and action are punctuated with flashes of topical banter on larger issue.

It all smacks of relevance, and almost seems subversively smart. Then Adam Sandler catches a Hakky Sak with his butt.

Sandler’s root humor is still overacted slapstick that feeds on stupidity. He succeeds most handily in defining Zohan and in the movie’s early Mediterranean scenes. But early potential can’t carry the whole. The movie flounders once Zohan lands stateside. Here, overreliance on running gags renders humor repetitive, especially as concerns the hero’s utterly selfless libido. Supporting characters essential to the humor just don’t click; even The Phantom proves a bit flat. And many promising jokes fail to ring funny as story shambles along through waning inspiration.

The simplified plot makes sense, but veteran Sandler director Dennis Dugan (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; Happy Gilmore) has little discipline for making the telling coherent. Dueling arcs prevent one another from becoming prominent: Minor Palestinian expat Salim (Rob Schneider, recently the Asian minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) guns after Zohan for revenge and fame. Meanwhile, that “Let’s Get Ready to <trrrademark>” guy moonlights as a WASP developer who likes to yell a lot (his only talent) and tries to orchestrate the downfall of Zohan’s adoptive neighborhood. Both hold promise, but neither is explored effectively enough to direct the story or to mine humor.

Sandler et al. get kudos for confronting crisis with comedy and offering a hopeful perspective on the struggle. Perhaps this flick will improve with fresh perception, like Men in Tights and Zoolander when released on video. At first blush, though, it’s only good for a few irreverent laughs.

Fair • PG-13 • 113 mins.

Youth in Revolt

© Dimension Films

Trying to woo a girl, Nick (Michael Cera) takes on bad-boy alter-ego François Dillinger.

A good boy goes bad to win a girl’s devotion in this awkward comedy.

reviewed by Mark Burns, January 14, 2010

Nick (Michael Cera: Year One) is an introverted, bookish 16-year-old who likes to think he’s esoteric and spills a logorrhea of SAT words when he speaks. He can’t get a girl. At least not until his mom and her boyfriend take him on a vacation to some woodland trailer park, where he discovers plucky complement in Franco-centric resident Sheeni (Portia Doubleday: 18). Summer fling ends in frustrated innocence, however, when Nick is dragged home. So Nick hatches the alter ego François Dillinger, turning delinquent to break free of his mom and striving to be the rogue of Sheeni’s dreams.

It’s a goofy but promising premise, adapted from the same-titled novel by C.D. Payne: The nebbish commits himself to boldness via schizophrenic abandon, all to sate his crushing want for sweet romance. Could be fun.

The movie often is. Comic promise is best realized in scenes of François’ hubris, whether in the form of arson, scandalous come-ons or challenges to elders. It’s especially effective as overlaid with the typical Cera role of a stammering, unconfident adolescent Nick, surprised and appalled by his own behavior. The core gag is further fleshed by fun situational wit, an assortment of colorful characters and spacey drug use.

Hang-ups, though, bring the funny down. The teens’ dialogue frequently comes off as a forced mimic of Wes Anderson’s tweedy bourgeois aesthetic but without the substance or context to connect. Dispassionate lewdness and explicit remarks make the film feel more alien. François, the movie’s best asset, is underused. Eccentric side characters seem random and lightly developed: Nick’s buddies are strange sketches that disappear ungracefully; Sheeni’s hyper-religious parents are barely the foil of promise. Drug gags are randomly thrown in for something else bad to do. Story wanders looking for mischief with uneven pacing and jerky progression.

Director Miguel Arteta’s (odd TV episodes including Ugly Betty and The Office) tries to put a spin on things with animated vignettes. It’s fine if you want to see clay birds humping in stop-motion animation or cartoon sexual diagrams playing out on a mushroom trip, but I’ll say it isn’t.

Still, the movie offers amusing adolescent mischief with an original, quirky vibe. There’s enough fun here to make it not a waste of a matinee. It’ll be better, though, if you skip the heavy spoilage of its previews.

Fair comedy • R • 90 mins.

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