The big, blustery physical comedy of Jack Black makes for a mostly amusing fit with Michael Cera’s quiet comedy of self-negation in Year One, a ramshackle banished-buddy picture which connects more on the strength of its scene-to-scene joke writing than a startlingly grand execution of its premise. Pushing far away from one’s brain any recollections of of historical or religious antiquity is of paramount importance given the historic license the story takes. Once that is accomplished, though, there’s airy delight in the mixing of slightly contemporized but socially inept consciousnesses with a primitive setting.
When oafish hunter Zed (Black) eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge and later accidentally sets fire to his village, he’s banished. Reluctantly accompanying Zed out into the wilderness is his reserved gatherer pal Oh (Cera, sporting a generally ridiculous wig that undergoes an unexplained metamorphosis three-quarters of the way through the movie); left behind are their respective crushes, Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple). Discovering that the story of the world’s edge is false, the wandering pair comes across hothead Cain (David Cross), and bear witness to his murder of his brother, Abel.
Again fleeing, Zed and Oh come across Abraham (Hank Azaria) , who warns them of the sins of the nearby city of Sodom. This sounds like a great place to Zed, however, and so off they go, to partake of its pleasures. Once there, they again cross paths with Maya and Eema, who have been sold into slavery, as well as Cain. While Zed tries to devise a plot to free the ladies, Oh fends off the advances of the king’s creepy, flamboyant high priest (Oliver Platt).
Though somewhat similar in some of its targets to Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Mel Brooks’ sprawling History of the World: Part One, Year One is more assertively a hodgepodge of different eras, in this case commingling polytheism alongside Judeo-Christian Biblical stories separated by hundreds of years. Trying to hold onto and make any sense of the manner in which intersects chronologically factual human history or cognitive development is akin to swimming upstream into a headstrong current. It doesn’t help, either, that the movie can’t seem to decide whether Zed and Oh are accidental masters of their fate (upon arriving in Sodom, they briefly become royal guards), or habitual victims of circumstances and their surroundings. The sooner one relinquishes the notion that this is more than anything than just an unfettered spit-balling of widely generalized life in a dusty, bygone era, the more simply they’re able to appreciate the movie’s otherwise generally solid joke-writing and characterizations.
The lead performances certainly don’t differ wildly from the personas that the two actors have cultivated; Black plays a libidinal, instinctive chatterbox, while Cera trades in wallflower asides and nervous, awkward silences. In their juxtaposition and interplay, however, there’s something approaching a sincere freshness. This owes to age and demeanor, yes, but also size — something that director Harold Ramis isn’t afraid to exploit through both written material and physical gags large and small. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Columbia, PG-13, 96 minutes)