In terms of ideas, Year One feels like a collision between the prehistoric spoof Caveman (1981) wherein Ringo Starr was an inept caveman who was forced out by the bullying tribe leader, travelled through the wilds with his best friend and discovered most of the advances in civilisation, through which he attempted to win the woman he desired, and the Mel Brooks historical spoof The History of the World Part I (1981) wherein Brooks subjected various historical eras to his usual gags. Or perhaps what Year One resembles even more so than The History of the World is the largely forgotten and reportedly awful Biblical spoof Wholly Moses! (1980) in which Dudley Moore played an Old Testament prophet who comically stumbles through many of the incidents from The Bible.
Year One feels like it has all the elements present that it should have made it hilarious. It has clearly been produced on a reasonable budget that allows the construction of a well-detailed city of Ancient Sodom. However, it feels more like an effort that is trying hard but never quite makes it. Most of it seems to consist of Jack Black and Michael Cera going through the usual on-screen schtick that either is known for but wearing furs or tunics. Jack Black is a funny man but in watching Year One, one feels that Blacks on-screen routine that peaked five years ago has started to reach its use-by date. Here Blacks routines making animal noises, tasting poo, trying to make out with a lesbian Lilith, go on and on in a way that you can see the aimed-for gag but the laughs never seem to kick in, while the gags becomes overstated in the eventual exhaustion of Black and Harold Ramis in trying to make them work. Black at least has a madcap energy that keeps the show afloat even when the film is emerging only routinely around him, he keeps going with the Jack Black thing and giving it his all, trying almost anything he can think of for a laugh.
On the other hand, Michael Cera seems miscast as Jack Blacks offsider. Cera is a good performer it is just that he is young, slim of build and his on-screen persona consists of a mix of boyish cuteness and shyly dry delivery that seems overly modest in its understatement. Cast in the very physical role of a caveman, Cera looks out-of-place. Moreover, once in the long-hair caveman wig and furs, his boyish looks seem positively effeminate. While everyone else gives passable performances, there is David Cross who has unfortunately developed one of the most obnoxious screen personas in show business. Some of Crosss scenes like where he tries to pretend he hasnt killed Abel are excruciating.
Harold Ramis passes through the material with amiable efficiency, but never raises the film to a level that produces riotous laughter. Rather, Year One is a Lowest Common Denominator comedy pitched at the box-office middle ground. The comic beats are all easy ones Michael Cera must share a bed with Adams son who spends the whole time farting; Jack Black sniffs and then tastes dung to get a trail; Michael Cera must fend off the attentions of a gay high priest (Oliver Platt) who insists that he massage hot oil into his extremely hair chest and stomach; Cera is hung upside down in the cells for the sole purpose of a gag where he has to urinate and it runs down into his face and mouth, and so on.
Perhaps the one interesting aspect of Year One is that it seems to have been intended as a film about atheism. A few years ago, following the success of Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ (2004), we had a spate of films that were about matters Christian and were pitched directly to church audiences. Behind the outward face of unsubtle mainstream comedy, Year One feels like it has been pitched as a rejoinder from the other side of the fence. It is noticeable that, though it concerns itself with various incidents from the Bible, the film only offers a mundane interpretation of events. Jack Black eats of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, yet though he seems to think it does, there is no clear evidence that he gains any knowledge from doing so. Abraham feels divinely ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac in the desert (as per The Book of Genesis) but it is the arrival of Jack Black as opposed to the Almighty that spares Isaacs life. Equally, no doubt in a kick in the eye to the creationists, cavemen coexist with Adam and Eve ie. the film implies that Adam was not the first man on Earth and that humanity stretches back to an evolved prehistory. Aside from that, there are direct scenes where the film seems to speak out in favour of atheism like a speech that Michael Cera gets in the forbidden temple where he asks What if there is no God? This reaches a heavy-handed point at the climax where Jack Black is acclaimed as the Chosen One by the Sodomites who expect the rain to fall because he has overthrown the high priest but where he stands up to decry such in favour of a blandly democratic Maybe we can all be Chosen.