If there’s one literary work crying out for a hilarious movie adaptation starring Jack Black, it’s the Old Testament. In Year One, Black and Michael Cera play primitive hunter-gatherers who, banished from their tribe for stupidity and general uselessness, wander down from the mountains and into history—stopping along the way to eat fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge. It’s a potentially funny, tricky premise, and in the hands of someone as talented and slightly skewed as writer-director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters) and a pair of writers from The Office, it should have worked.
But for the most part, it doesn’t. Year One isn’t dreadful; it just isn’t nearly as funny as it hopes to be. Solidly in the Mel Brooks tradition (History Of The World, Part I being an obvious antecedent), Year One whips jokes at the screen as quickly as possible, theorizing that if one doesn’t get a laugh, the next might. The hit-to-miss ratio is frequently too low, though, and Black’s cocksure face-pulling (a surprisingly good pairing with Michael Cera’s timid Michael Cera-ness) can only rescue bad jokes so often. There are dick, fart, poop, pee, and body-hair gags, all time-honored subjects served up almost completely wit-free. (Okay, Cera hanging upside down and peeing on his own face is a little funny, but Black picking up a piece of shit and eating it is just tired.)
The supporting cast does its best to bring a sideways look at the material: David Cross plays Cain as gleefully mean, double-crossing Cera and Black one minute and embracing them the next. Hank Azaria turns the father of modern religion, Abraham, into a hammy goof obsessed with circumcision, and his son, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad’s McLovin), loves to sneak off to Sodom and party. Oliver Platt, on the other hand, turns up solely for some flat gay-panic/hairy-guy jokes, and the two female leads—whom the heroes are ostensibly trying to save, when they aren’t goofing off—are so inconsequential that they might as well be inanimate treasures. Even the bright performances can’t save a wedged-together, totally unnecessary plot, and Year One commits comedy heresy when Black ends up learning a lesson at the end. (He isn’t, he realizes, the “chosen one” after all.) Aiming for broad appeal, the movie casts too many stones, most of which miss their targets.