Two Cave Men Walk Into the Old Testament

The pleasing conceptual simplicity of Year One.

Year One 

Year One (Sony Pictures), the cave man buddy comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, is a slapdash concoction with an overreliance on scatological gags and a long lag time between laughs. I freely admit that. Yet I have a certain affection for this movie, if only because of its conceptual simplicity. Year One doesn’t avail itself of digital animation or elaborate time-travel scenarios; Ramis doesn’t hire consultants to create a credible prehistoric language or worry about historical consistency. He just plonks two guys in pelts down in a world where Stone Age cave men coexist with biblical characters and lets the unstructured and intermittently funny sketch comedy roll.

In the primitive village where Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) live, there are only two career possibilities: hunting and gathering. Zed is an incompetent hunter, while Oh is a daydreaming gatherer. When Zed is exiled from the tribe for eating from the tree of forbidden fruit (see what I mean about consistency?), Oh follows him on a trek to what’s supposed to be the end of the earth. Instead, they run into Cain (David Cross), who promptly murders his brother, Abel (Paul Rudd), and enlists the hapless cave dudes in a pathetically transparent cover-up. Eventually, the boys flee with Cain to the decadent city of Sodom, where they must free two cave girls from their own village (June Raphael and Juno Temple) who’ve been sold into slavery.

If Year One is about anything at all (which is debatable), it’s about the absurdity of religious dogma. As they wander through the tradition-bound world of the Israelites, Zed and Oh innocently puncture one taboo after another (the eating of the forbidden fruit, the violation of the holy temple), and time after time, nothing happens. When pompous patriarch Abraham (Hank Azaria) tries to talk up the sacred rite of circumcision, he has trouble finding takers: You want us to cut off what? Many of the bit players, especially Azaria and Oliver Platt as a high-camp high priest, have a grand time with the script’s juxtaposition of lofty Old Testament diction and contemporary speech. “We are the Hebrews,” intones Azaria, “a righteous people, not very good at sports.”

The essential question of a buddy comedy, of course, is whether and how the two leads bounce off each other, and while they may not be the next Laurel and Hardy, I found Black and Cera’s teamwork to be reasonably bouncy. Black’s me-so-crazy shtick can get grating—I thought he’d worn out his welcome definitively in Tropic Thunder—but he’s a natural collaborator, that rare comic who actually listens to his interlocutors instead of just waiting for his turn to riff. And I can’t get enough of Cera, a sad-eyed beanpole whose delivery is so dry it’s almost uninflected. He has a way of stepping on the very end of Black’s lines with quickly blurted put-downs that gets me every time; it’s the comedy of passive-aggression, a tart counterpoint to Black’s oleaginous self-assurance. Cera’s critics complain that he always plays the same role, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We need Michael Cera to keep being Michael Cera. Nobody else knows how.

Slate V: The critics on Year One and other new movies