Year One: In the Beginning, There Was Schtick

A romp of Biblical ridiculousness proves there’s nothing new under the sun.  Review by Richard Lindsay.

In my recent course on religion and popular culture, I gave part of a lecture about the history of Jewish comedy in America. Examining the seemingly endless list of comedians from among the Chosen People—the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Milton Bearle, Lenny Bruce, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart—one quickly understands that the phrase “Jewish American humor” is a redundancy.  Through the long history of Jewish humor, there’s an ironic delivery, an examination of the absurdity of life, an ability to throw banana peels at sacred belief that grows out of a tradition of wrestling with scripture and history that congeals into the comedic patter known as “Schtick.”  If Year One, writer/director Harold Ramis’ latest film, is to be believed, the Schtick goes back to Father Abraham and beyond.

The story is about two hunter-gatherers named Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) who are pretty much losers among their Stone-Age crew.  Zed’s hunting expeditions result in spears to the back of his fellows and Oh’s gathering leaves him at the bottom of the pecking order in his lust for the ladies.  “What does she see in those hunters?  She’s not even a hunter, she’s a gatherer. She’s a self-loathing gatherer.”  The pair have resigned themselves to their lot in life when Zed decides to break the one big rule and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit tastes “knowledgy” but it doesn’t seem to make Zed any smarter, just convinced that he’s “chosen” to do something great with his life.  The two are banished from the tribe after Zed’s “sin” and set off in search of their fortunes.

They emerge from the woods and move seamlessly into the Iron Age, where they stumble upon feuding farm boys Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd, respectively). After the first fratricide, Cain, Zed, and Oh escape from father Adam (Ramis) in an extremely low-speed oxcart chase. Separated for the time being from Cain, Zed and Oh find themselves a few centuries in the future, about to witness Abraham (Hank Azaria) sacrifice Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse—a.k.a. “McLovin’” ingeniously cast). Filling in for the Angel of the Lord, the pair stop Abraham. “You were about to kill your son!” “I was about to sacrifice my son. There’s a subtle difference!” Drop knife on foot. Rimshot. Next joke.

Father Abraham turns out to be somewhat of a religious kook—no sooner has he taken Isaac off the altar than he’s ordering every male in the camp circumcised. He’s also convinced God has made his people “chosen” and promised them a wide swath of prime Middle Eastern Promised Land. “Yeah,” Isaac says in his ‘my-dad’s-so-dumb’ voice “but evidently God forgot to tell anyone else ‘cause we’re in different war like every year.’” Here the underlying message of the film begins to emerge—be careful what god you’re listening to when you’re convinced you‘re “chosen.”

Led by the rebellious Isaac, Zed and Oh go to Sodom, which turns out to be more like Las Vegas than the Castro. All of the earthly (mostly heterosexual) pleasures can be found in the city, but the religious and political leaders have a bad habit of burning virgins alive to appease the gods when things aren’t going well. (Oh wonders nervously if this practice only applies to female virgins.)

When the two end up in the holiest of holies in the town’s temple, they have an argument about God, wondering if the silence in the place is because God isn’t there—or perhaps he “stepped out.” Zed is actually the more adventurous one, leading this goose chase across the ancient world, but also seems to have more faith in himself and in God. Oh is the skeptic, unconvinced of God’s existence or his own ability to live a self-constructed life.

Eventually, Zed, seemingly with God’s approval, realizes his “chosenness” didn’t come from the forbidden fruit after all, but from his irrepressible spirit and his inherent value as a human being. He then leads the people of Sodom in a moment of self-actualization reminiscent of (but not as funny as) Brian’s speech to his mindless followers in Life of Brian (1979): “You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!” CROWD: “Yes! We’re all individuals! LONE VOICE: “I’m not…” Rimshot. Next Joke.

Throughout the film, Black and Cera essentially play the same roles as in all their other films, although Black’s slightly smarter than the average rock antics and Cera’s brainy mumbling make an appealing comedy team. As usual in buddy movies, the girls the guys are after, Eema and Maya (Juno Temple and June Diane Raphael, respectively) serve mainly as pretty plot devices for a story that’s really about a relationship between the boys.

Underneath the film’s schtick, and maybe the uber-schtick I mentioned earlier, there lies an underlying question of meaning. Should you be a follower or an explorer? Should you find your “chosenness” or have it handed to you by tradition, culture, family, and religion? The writers seem to suggest the answers may have as much to do with personality as anything else. Throughout the whole ridiculous story, God seems a little out-to-lunch, but there’s a possibility God still exists. In the end, Ramis and crew seem to come to the same conclusion as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Especially when it comes to circumcision jokes.

Year One (97 mins.) is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language, and comic violence and is in theaters everywhere.