Harold Ramis’ Year One is one of those films that probably sounded like a good idea when pitched to the studio. The only problem is that no one bothered questioning the conceptual flimsiness of parading Jack Black and Michael Cera as cavemen through the Book of Genesis. Not only that, but it presents Black at his most obnoxious and brash, and Cera at his most awkwardly nebbish-ish and painfully twee (in other words, the same character he’s always played).
Most of this would seem to be the fault of Harold Ramis. As director, he allowed these two to simply sleepwalk through the movie, pawning off the worst aspects of their screen personas on the audience. As co-writer (along with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who both wrote some episodes of TV’s The Office), he also thought the humor surrounding Black and Cera—an odds-and-ends collection of gross-out gags, sex jokes, gay jokes and post-modern cleverness that never find the right pitch—was funny enough to be fed to the general public. In some ways he was correct, since Jack Black eating bear dung and Michael Cera urinating on himself both got huge laughs (who says comedy is dead?) at the screening I caught. But beyond being anything other than a compilation of overbearing juvenilia, Year One is pretty worthless.
The set-up is of the high-concept variety, with Black playing Zed, a hunter (and not a very good one) and Cera as Oh, a gatherer. The two live in a small village that’s presumably the Garden of Eden, since the buffoonish Zed decides to eat from the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Zed’s promptly kicked out of the village for breaking their one rule, and—once Zed has accidentally set the village on fire—Oh decides to follow along into the mysterious world at large.
The movie’s then a jaunt through the Old Testament (which means the movie doesn’t take place in year one, but we won’t let that get in the way of a moderately clever title). We see a bickering Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd); meet an aging Adam (Ramis) and Eve (Rhoda Griffis, One Missed Call); and run into Abraham (Hank Azaria) just as he’s about to sacrifice Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Role Models). There’s some stuff about saving their former village members from slavery, but it’s all pretty thin and ultimately brain-deadening in its hokiness.
In theory, the Bible should be ripe for comedy, and occasionally it is here (Abraham being painted as a religious zealot works for the most part), but the film’s reliance on sodomy jokes and flatulence gags just doesn’t cut it. At the same time, Year One’s cheeky, nit-picking deconstruction of cave men and the Old Testament is already old hat. Mel Brooks already dabbled in this with his History of the World: Part 1 (1981) and it wasn’t all that funny then. Thirty years later, it hasn’t improved significantly. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence.