2001: A Space Odyssey‘s dawn-of-man apes had never picked up that bone. Pairing Jack Black and Michael Cera as a pitiful hunter and wimpy gatherer, respectively, of an ancient forest tribe, the film boasts all the inspiration of a 12:45 p.m.-slotted Saturday Night Live sketch. The primary joke involves the two leads talking about archaic culture in their trademark 21st-century tongues while donning animal skins and sporting long hair, a wobbly conceit on which to hinge a blockbuster and one that reaps few rewards.
Zed (Black) is a boorish horndog moron and Oh (Cera) is his soft-spoken sarcastic weakling sidekick, odd-couple best friends who are cast out of their clan after Zed eats fruit from the forbidden forest and burns down their camp. Exiled, they soon find themselves in a variety of sub-Life of Brian Old Testament vignettes, from psychotic Cain (David Cross) murdering brother Abel (Paul Rudd), to circumcision-happy Abraham (Hank Azaria) trying to sacrifice son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to evil Romans enjoying the pleasures of Sodom. Epitomizing Year One‘s wan sense of humor, that den of iniquity is equated with Las Vegas but never shown to be anything more than the final stop—replete, alas, with another of this summer’s gay objects of ridicule in the form of Oliver Platt’s body oil-loving High Priest—on a meandering journey that leaves its actors to their own devices.
Asked to enliven the flaccid ridiculousness, Cera frequently disappears behind a veneer of ultra-cool drollness, and Black fares only slightly better, nailing a few enthusiastic random quips amid a sea of unchecked shticky riffing. Throughout, the enterprise plays like a series of rough skits, never more so than when the film abruptly fails to follow through on separate animal attacks suffered by Oh, both of which are dropped via curt fade outs and then more-or-less ignored in the subsequent scenes. After much talk about Zed’s status as the Chosen One, Year One concludes its trivial debate about God’s existence by endorsing free will, an ironic pro-autonomy climax for an aimless, slapdash film in desperate need of more authoritative stewardship.