Every era gets the prehistoric comedy it deserves. In the '60s, when the desire to find our way back to our primitive, shaggy-haired selves was all the rage, there was a vogue for caveman slapstick The Flintstones, the comic strip B.C., and, of course, the Raquel Welch loincloth oglefest One Million Years B.C. (not a comedy, at least not intentionally, but who's counting intentions?). In our current all-snark-all-the-time meta-culture, where there are twice as many late-night talk-show hosts devising new ways not to take anything seriously as there are network news anchors, we have Year One, starring Jack Black as Zed, a facetious, jabbering, mock-fierce hunter, and Michael Cera as Oh, a facetious, monosyllabic, mock-ineffectual gatherer. The two are bedecked in loincloths, pelts, and unkempt Neanderthal hair, but under the barbaric ensembles they're meant to be ludicrously contemporary, outrageously civilized misfits stuck in a tribe of head-conking brutes. They're such outcasts that within the film's opening 20 minutes, they get booted out of the tribe. They then trek to the mountains that are supposed to mark the end of the world and land in the middle of...the story of Cain and Abel.
You heard right. Year One, directed by the veteran card Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), from a script he co-wrote with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, sets us up to expect a caveman comedy, but the film turns into a blockbuster game of bait and switch. It takes these two lugs, who barely seem like lugs, and sets them down in a series of half-cocked Bible stories, where they unleash their frazzled, too-much-bad- cable-TV derision on a bunch of long- bearded scowlers who speak in ''Art thou?'' Scripture-ese. The movie could be Bill & Ted's Old Testament Adventure, or maybe Hope and Crosby–meets–Jimmy Kimmel on The Road to Sodom, with the second half set entirely inside that walled-up sin city. Year One has a handful of chuckles, but it's also harmless and scattershot, without much primitive bite. These targets were savaged far more cuttingly 30 years ago, in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Then again, that was satire. This is just silliness run mildly wild.
One reason that I'm always up for a Jack Black comedy is that he never, ever loses his enjoyment of idiot cool. Each time he gleams lustfully, or offers one of his I must be on drugs if you just said that discombobulated rejoinders, it's as if for the first time (though let's be honest, it's probably the 501st time). In Year One, Black rides a horse-drawn cart as if it were a roller coaster, and he also threads his way through smiting, fratricide, and the invention of circumcision with his incredulous stoner logic. When a girl is about to be sacrificed to God, Black will not miss a beat before saying ''Seems like a waste of a perfectly good virgin to me!'' And the thing is, he means it. Michael Cera tries to coax his more passive style into a 'tude as tricky as Black's, only Cera's presence doesn't pop. He's attempting to be an ironic wimp, but he seems not just wimpy but neutered. He comes off as a contradiction a flatly sincere, almost academic cutup.
Fortunately, there are terrific supporting jesters in Year One. Hank Azaria turns the imperious Abraham into a very grand wack-job; David Cross makes the murderous Cain a figure of hilariously matter-of-fact ego; and Oliver Platt, freeing himself from his usual mopiness, is a marvel as Sodom's high priest, a lisping libertine dandy who, having made Cera's Oh his slave of the moment, forces the poor young man to baste him in body oil. Platt, more than anyone, is the soul of the movie, because he makes even the most primitive perversity sound...well, civilized. B–