If Harold Ramis' Year One were a bowling match, it would lurch between gutter balls and spares, with some scattered lucky strikes. Despite the key image of rotund Jack Black and willowy Michael Cera in animal skins, it's not a caveman comedy like Caveman. It's a romp through the early chapters of the Bible with Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera), who are forced to leave their primitive village when Zed eats fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
At its best, it's a bit like Mel Brooks' The History of the World Part I (except Ramis stops somewhere in Genesis); at its worst, it's like a Scary Movie-type parody of John Huston's The Bible. Black's Zed is a Brooksian figure, all wiliness and appetite, while Cera is more like an elongated Woody Allen, intelligent but strangled in a continuing tussle between his erupting id and his feelings of inadequacy. These two share a loopy chemistry; their affection is disarming. They keep the movie likable even when it stumbles all over the place and then gets stuck in Sodom.
Anyone who's studied "hunter-gatherer cultures" in Anthropology 101 will laugh when the inhabitants of Zed and Oh's village refer to themselves quite consciously as "hunters" and "gatherers." We're amused to think our college profs got something right; it's as if the characters in Mad Men suddenly called themselves "organization men" or "the lonely crowd."
Oh is definitely a gatherer, spending his days wiping bird poop off strawberries; when he sees his true love flirting with hunters, he calls her a self-loathing gatherer. Still, these roles are fluid. When Zed admits he's not the best hunter, he confesses he's not the best gatherer either.
So far, so witty. Yet director Ramis, who sketched out the story and co-wrote the script, also brings infantile gross-out gags to new lows - he traces bodily function gags to their historical source. He bets that toilet humor will seem funnier if set in the epoch B.T. (Before Toilets).
The film's wild swings from college humor to lowdown whimsy wouldn't give an audience whiplash if Ramis had more style as a moviemaker. (In Year One, as in The Proposal, the closing-credit gag and blooper reels scarcely differ from the actual film.)
Ramis can't find funny ways to end a scene with the serpent at the Tree of Knowledge and another scene with a cougar, so he simply cuts ahead to the next bit. These jumps don't amount to a blackout comedy style; they're just a series of cheats. At the same time, Ramis' no-big-deal attitude toward momentous mythology and history keeps you relaxed and hopeful for his next coup. It makes sense that Zed and Oh, who've never seen a wheel, will experience a cart ride as a roller coaster.
The main joke of the jarring Cain and Abel scene is that Abel proves as hard to kill as Rasputin; the minor joke for fans of the Judd Apatow Gang is that an uncredited Paul Rudd plays Abel. Because the movie verges on being too hip and smug about its secular humanism, it comes as a relief that some divine power still sears "the mark of Cain" into the murderer's forehead and that David Cross plays Cain, the film's third lead character, as the ultimate weasel.
Oh and Zed, who starts calling himself "the Chosen," continue to pratfall in and out of Bible stories, most effectively when they interrupt Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. What holds the movie together, barely, is their attempt to save from slavery their respective true loves, the swarthy Maya (June Diane Raphael) and the blonde Eema (Juno Temple, who is fizzy and fun, a bit like Yvette Mimieux in her Time Machine days).
They all meet up again at Sodom, where Ramis appears as flummoxed by the scale as his heroes. Ramis studs the sequence with shticks, including Oliver Platt's oleaginous turn as a gay high priest. But it goes on forever and gets all holy about its anti-holiness. Zed declares that every man or woman is "chosen" and can create his or her own destiny. It's a highfalutin story arc for a hit-or-miss film that basically makes the Promised Land and its surroundings as slap-happy as the Land of the Lost.
(Columbia Pictures) Starring Jack Black, Michael Cera and Oliver Platt. Directed by Harold Ramis. Rated PG-13 for language and crude and sexual content. Time 97 minutes.