There’s a certain amount of winky irreverence built into “I Give It a Year,” based on its title alone, which is something that people snarl, usually at the weddings of people who they feel are fundamentally incompatible. The title suggests that, while it might appear to be a bouncy romantic comedy, it has some seriously acidic undertones. This sensation is solidified once you know that Dan Mazer, one of Sacha Baron Cohen‘s confederates and a co-writer on both “Borat” and “Bruno,” wrote and directed “I Give It a Year.” Maybe it’s the “Cabin in the Woods” of romantic comedies – something that simultaneously deconstructs the genre while celebrating it (and ultimately elevating it to the next plateau). Unfortunately, “I Give It a Year” is a woefully inept, unfunny, unsexy romantic comedy that falls into all the pitfalls and familiar genre tropes that it willingly tries to avoid.
“I Give It a Year” starts where most romantic comedies end – with a wedding. This must have seemed terribly clever to Mazer and his collaborators, but honestly, it just seems cloying and obvious, especially after a brief title sequence in which the courtship of Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) is so sweetly over-exaggerated that it has no choice but to fail. These opening moments do contain a few laughs, though, in a movie scarce with them – most of these chuckles are provided by the forceful awkwardness of Stephen Merchant, playing Josh’s googly-eyed best friend Danny. (Minnie Driver plays Nat’s sister, Naomi, and the perennially under-utilized Jason Flemyng plays Naomi’s husband. They are also bright spots in a dark movie; both are given precious little to do.) As rice is being thrown in their direction, a scowling Naomi remarks, “I give it a year.”
After the wedding, we see Nat and Josh in the office of a couple’s therapist (Olivia Coleman), which serves as the movie’s clunky pseudo-framing device – they chart how their relationship, a few months after getting married, has already deteriorated. Josh is a novelist, although we don’t know what his first book was about or how it fared commercially (both would have some bearing on both plot and character), and Nat (who has a successful career in marketing) can’t stand that he’s home all the time. Also, since Danny has been sidelined for much of the middle of the movie – assumingly so Merchant could do something actually deserving of his comedic talents – Mazer folds in many of Danny’s traits into Josh, and he suddenly becomes annoyingly goofy, which also enrages Nat.
Soon, both Nat and Josh start to feel romantic inclinations towards people. Nat starts to fall for a new client, a hunky American and head of a cleaning company named Guy (Simon Baker, actually Australian), and Josh reconnects with old flame Chloe (Anna Faris, certifiably American). Both scenarios are, at best, morally questionable, and at worst make both characters totally fucking despicable human beings. More than once you’ll want to shake one of them and say, It’s been less than a year! The performers themselves are quite gifted, but their characters are all lacking in key areas of charisma and empathy. They are monsters, doing monstrous things.
All of the romantic fumbling and philandering could have been funny, hell, it should have been funny, but Mazer’s writing is perpetually slack. Big comic “moments” are designed by things like Josh accidentally loading an electronic picture frame, given to him by his in-laws, with pornographic vacation photos. Watch, as he tries desperately to defect their gaze from a photograph of his penis! This kind of slapstick already feels out-of-date, and today it feels ossified and oppressive. Another sequence has Guy letting his intentions known to Nat while a pair of white doves flutter around the room – Byrne’s reactions to the animals is sort of funny (and seems like it might be real), but a running gag of one of the birds flying into a ceiling fan is a total dud, sucking any of the comedic energy out of the room and shooting it into the dark recesses of space. What’s worse is that, after one of the doves does fly into the fan, the movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions – it’s quickly revived and flies away. There’s that old comedy adage about how someone falling down is funny but someone dying is really hilarious; imagine the guffaws that could have been milked by an atomized dove.
“I Give It a Year” groans on, with unmemorable scene after unmemorable scene, each one more contingent on coincidence and happenstance than by the actual, gear-filled mechanics of drama or comedy. By the time Merchant re-appears towards a ludicrous, totally invented, outrageously convenient climax, it’s too late – the damage has been done. It’s hard to imagine ever laughing again after being steamrolled by this juggernaut of lameness. If “I Give It a Year” was simply a generic British rom-com, it would have been terrible but nearly excusable. What makes it such a burning zeppelin of a movie is that it thinks that it’s doing something really inventive and irreverent, sending up the romantic comedy genre in energetic and profound new ways. But by the end of the movie, two characters are racing to find the one that they love, in the rain no less, and it’s another cliché in a movie that strains to try and circumvent them. [D]