An amiable stroll through biblical times featuring Jack Black and Michael Cera as exiled Neanderthals, “Year One” lacks seismic guffaws but elicits many mild smiles. Borrowing the understated run-on gag structure from co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (“The Office,” for which director Harold Ramis has helmed a few episodes), and adding several players from producer Judd Apatow’s stable, this low-tech opus offers an ironic commentary on the utter idiocy of religious superstition and received knowledge, all the funnier for being delivered by world-class idiot Black. Still, the PG-13-rated, CG-free comedy may prove too tame to score big with target auds.”Year One” opens on a slapstick wild-boar chase in a primordial environment with few employment possibilities other than professional hunter or professional gatherer.
Accident-prone hunter Zed (Black), having eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, is kicked out of his village. Reluctantly accompanied by nerdy gatherer Oh (Cera), Zed crosses over mountains (and several millennia) to arrive in time to witness Cain (David Cross) slay Abel (Paul Rudd, in a hilarious cameo) not once but several times, each new assault more “accidental” than the last.
After enjoying a brief sleepover at Adam’s (Ramis) and thwarting the human sacrifice of Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) by dad Abraham (Hank Azaria), the Neanderthal pair wind up in Sodom for the last half of the picture, trailing half the cast with them.
Naming himself “the Chosen,” Black’s Zed keeps tearing down belief systems — that the world ends over the next hill, that virgin sacrifices bring drought-relieving rain — only to replace them with elaborately rationalized, purely ego-driven elevations of himself as the world’s savior, until reality (or else the more sarcastic Oh) hauls him back from his delusions of grandeur.
Fittingly for a movie that denies religious causality, the jokes themselves seldom have defined beginnings, middles or ends. Some gags have no payoff whatsoever (Oh, fatally wrapped in a huge yellow python, shows up unscathed in the next scene without explanation).
Black’s partner-friendly stylings, as evidenced in his couplings with Hector Jimenez in “Nacho Libre” and Mos Def in “Be Kind Rewind,” pay off beautifully here: He and Cera bounce off each other brilliantly, Black’s braggadocio neatly complementing Cera’s sadsack understatement. But other casting choices in this overpopulated spoof seem like so much excess baggage. Apatow discovery Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad”) fails to rekindle his McLovin’ magic as a tagalong Isaac. June Raphael, as brunette bombshell Maya, doesn’t spark even negative magnetism — unlike Juno Temple’s ditzy Eema, who ultimately divests Oh of his teen-virgin status.
Ramis has been ridiculing the sanctimony of pious religious epics at least as far back as his legendary mid-’70s SCTV lampoon of “Ben-Hur.” Here, the helmer entertainingly skirts sacrilege with skits skewering a Sodomite high priest (a bejeweled Oliver Platt) and a colorful spin on Old Testament happenings including the reading of entrails (“To me, I see a happy face”).
Despite its irreverence, the pic seems unlikely to pique interest by courting religious opposition. Unlike Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” “Year One” so muddles its orthodoxy and telescopes its timeline as to make any protest seem more absurd than the film.