MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Tired Acts in Year One

How did Harold Ramis, Jack Black and Michael Cera — otherwise intelligent, talented people — end up involved in a mediocre, muddled project llikeYear One? I’d like to say this film is a perfectly acceptable comedy, the kind of movie that gives you a couple smiles here and there, and can be forgiven for being the kind of dreck destined to populate some late-night cable movie slot, but given the level of talent wasted here, it’s not.

I was actually shocked when I looked at the filmography of Harold Ramis and saw that it has been sixteen years since he has made a good film; granted, that last film was the masterpieceGroundhog Day, but sixteen years is a long slump.  In that period, he’s made the SNL adaptation Stuart Saves His Family, the mediocre cloning comedy Multiplicity, the atrocious remake of Bedazzled, Analyze This and Analyze That which are just excuses for Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro to mug for the camera, and the black comedy The Ice Harvest which I had high hopes for but was disappointed by.

I know Ramis isn’t exactly considered Spike Lee, but I think they have the same number of masterpieces to their credit: three.  And Ramis has given us not only Groundhog Day, butNational Lampoon’s Vacation and Caddyshack.  Those three films are unassailable masterpieces of comedic genius and that doesn’t even count his co-writing of Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School and Animal House.  And Club Paradise, which he also directed, is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, a film that my brother and I will often quote to one another (“Today is breakfast “jump-up.”  Jump up and grab it yourself!”)

The man is a legend for a reason and is probably responsible for more of my laughs than any other single person in cinema.  I spent a good portion of my youth rewatching all of those films until I had gotten to the point where I had memorized every line and every cadence.  Even still today, it breaks me up to watch the scene in Stripes where Bill Murray and Ramis go to the recruitment office and enlist in the army:

Recruiter: Now, are either of you homosexuals?

Murray: You mean, like, flaming?

Ramis: No, we’re not homosexuals, but we are willing to learn.

That’s just classic stuff.  What makes those lines so great, though, isn’t just the fact that they are funny; it’s that it’s two hilarious lines about an issue that is still relevant today.  By writing a scene in which the two main characters ask about degrees of homosexuality and talk of their willingness to learn about it, it points out the absurdity of the rule.  It’s comedy at its best.

Making a film like Year One would seem to give Ramis a perfect vehicle to make a lot of biting jokes about religion, but it pulls its punches at every turn, in a way that Ramis never would have done in his heyday.  Even in the more family-friendly Groundhog Day, the film doesn’t shy away from the very serious suicide attempts by the main character, even if they are cut with a sense of humor; but there’s still the notion there that being trapped there was so boring that suicide seemed like a logical escape.

The main character actually wants to die.  In Year One, we have scenes where the main characters encounter various dangers – cougars, snakes, etc. – and we never see the resolution; we know that a snake and a cougar attack them, but then we just cut to the next scene. Because of this, we never really fear for our protagonists’ safety since we already know that any serious attack upon them will be shrugged off.  So later, when they are facing death, it’s not a major concern.  Granted, this is a slapstick-type of film, but it doesn’t play by its own rules, and Ramis should know better.

It’s good to know that Ramis has signed up to appear in the new Ghostbusters sequel that has been kicking around for the last two decades, but I want to see him be more productive behind the camera again.  I think The Ice Harvest was actually a nice effort to branch out and I would actually like to see him bring his creativity and intelligence to an even darker film.  I look at someone like Woody Allen who seems to need to do a really dark drama or thriller here and there and they are always excellent and they seem to bring more vitality to his comedies.  Perhaps Ramis needs to take a page from Allen’s book and make a film as dark as Cassandra’s Dream or Match Point.  Or maybe Ramis doesn’t want to stretch as much, comfortable with his spot – and its a pretty damn good spot to be in – he’s capable of so much better than Year One.

Jack Black is in the same boat for me, someone who seems to be stuck in a creative rut. I don’t care what anyone says, the performance that Jack Black gave in School of Rockshould have been nominated for an Oscar, no joke.  He does it all in that movie; he sings, he dances, he makes you laugh and his character goes through a real, genuine change throughout the course of the movie that feels believable.  It was the perfect vehicle for all of the talents that Black possesses and it had a talented enough director in Richard Linklater who knew how exactly how much energy should be in any given scene and when things needed to be toned down a bit.

In nearly every film he’s made since then – including the intolerable Envy, the bloated King Kong, the over-the-top Nacho Libre, the oddly shrug-inducing Be Kind Rewind and the overrated Tropic Thunder – Black has seemed either miscast or hasn’t known what the film needs.  It seems like the volume has been on 11 constantly.  The two performances that I’ve liked him in were when he was more understated, in the underrated Margot at the Weddingand the pleasant The Holiday.

The man is definitely no master of subtlety, but I think those latter two films show that he’s got some range that he hasn’t explore. There is a depth to him and while on the surface he’s got warmth, I would love to see him explore something darker. His best music with his bandTenacious D is almost perversely sexual and I think that persona could be explored in a dark yet funny way in a film. Better yet, I would love to see Jack Black in a film noir comedy where he plays a private eye. The key is to either give him a role that naturally allows him to be boisterous or to give him one that reins him in. He’s one of the most talented men in Hollywood with the ability to make people laugh, to sing beautifully and he’s oozing charisma. I want to see him put those talents to good use.

“Oozing charisma” is not how I would describe Michael Cera, but he’s definitely extremely likable.  He’s a young man who is just starting out his career and he’s made me laugh in every one of the films he’s done.  I thought he was the best thing about Juno and I think he’s got the funniest lines in Year One.  But I really felt like his dry, sarcastic delivery that has made him famous really ruined Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  I don’t think that film ever had a chance of being a masterpiece, but it was hard to see him as a romantic lead when he was just so damn self-effacing all the time.  I think he has a chance to be a Cusack-like romantic lead – think of Cusack’s One Crazy Summer days – but I don’t want Cera to shoot himself in the foot or to be one-note.  Lucky for him, that one-note is pretty great, but it’s starting to wear a little bit thin.

Year One is not a film that should make me think this much, but it made me think about the careers of all three of the men involved rather than what was on screen.  I hope that I can look back at this film one day as the last film before all three of them had a creative resurgence.

– Noah Forrest
June 15, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon