Lately we’ve seen lots of origin movies. Hugh Jackman starred in a blockbuster about the beginnings of his most famous character, Wolverine and Iron Man gave us the skinny on how Robert Downey Jr became a superhero. Now Jack Black and Michael Cera star in the mother of all origin movies. Year One is a Biblical satire that picks up where movies like The Life of Brian left off, bringing a modern sensibility to a story about the foundation of our civilization.
Black and Cera play Zed and Oh, hunter-gatherers banished from their village in biblical times. Cut off from all they know the pair meander through Old Testament era Mesopotamia, get sold into slavery, narrowly avoid the first circumcision and bump into everyone from Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd) to Abraham (Hank Azaria). Eventually they try and rescue their old village-mates in the city where “the sinners are winners,” the doomed Sodom.
Much of the humor in Year One comes from Black and Cera dressing like hunter gatherers but speaking like a modern day odd couple. For example, when village leader Marlak (Matthew Willig) knocks a bowl of strawberries from Oh’s hand, Cera replies, “Well there won’t be any berries in the fruit salad now, so we all lose.” The anachronistic language is funny and the talented cast pulls it off, but I’m afraid there isn’t much more here than that.
Black and Cera bring their well defined comic personas—Black is the overconfident dumb guy, Cera the nerdy outsider—and both seem to have fun with their roles, but the ratio of laughs per minute isn’t as high as some other recent movies, most notably The Hangover. It’s a feel good movie, but not exactly a laugh-a-rama.
Part of the problem is the script. The thinly written story—it feels more like a series of skits than a whole—relies on the two leads to squeeze every last bit of charm from a script heavy with poo jokes, sex humor and all other forms of juvenilia, and for the most part they do, but Black’s mugging and Cera’s patented passiveness grow old by the time the credits roll.
Fortunately an all star list of cameos brightens things up a bit. Hank Azaria as Abraham brings the funny and Black’s Tenacious D sidekick Kyle Gass raises a smile as Zaftig the Eunuch. Both these supporting characters seem ripped out of another movie, a funnier movie. I left wondering what someone like Mel Brooks could have done with this material. I mean is there a more perfect Brooks character name than Zaftig the Eunuch?
Year One’s immature yuks should amuse fans of Jack Black and Michael Cera and it will offend some but leave most with only a faint smile.