“Year One”
Columbia
At Showcase and Quality 16

Courtesy of Columbia

2 out of 5 stars

Hollywood has been sporadically constructing high-concept comedies set in ancient times for the past several decades, but there hasn’t been anything new to say about the era since, well, ancient times.

What’s interesting is how the makers of these films have transplanted their very specific styles of humor into the well-worn setting. The Monty Python guys ran amok with cheeky wordplay and political incorrectness in “Life of Brian,” while Mel Brooks brought his Vaudevillian zaniness to a swords-and-sandals sketch show with “History of the World: Part I.”

Almost 30 years later, a subset of the Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) gang has made “Year One.” The film occurs in the same time and place as the others, but it features cavemen with 21st-century attitudes on things like class, family and the male reproductive organ.

Director Harold Ramis (“Groundhog Day”) is trying to combine the familiarity of a movie set somewhere in “the past” with a slacker comedy. The result, as expected, is funny at times but often stale and moldy.

“Year One” stars Jack Black in his Chosen One/rock star mode from his “Tenacious D” days, and Michael Cera in his “Superbad” awkward, girly teenager mode. Black and Cera have obviously played these same characters before, and the film knows it. The two are stand-ins that represent the past ten years’ worth of comic screen actors — as in, “Hey, let’s see what happens when we dress these two easily recognizable modern-day personas in loincloths.”

Black and Cera play two hunter-gatherers who are banished from their tribe and begin a long trek through vaguely Biblical surroundings. They witness the murder of Abel (Paul Rudd, “I Love You, Man”) by Cain (David Cross, TV’s “Arrested Development”), stop Abraham (Hank Azaria, “Along Came Polly”) from sacrificing Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, “Superbad”) and eventually wind up in Sodom, where they dress in many silly costumes and contemplate the nature of fate vs. free will. Cera urinates on himself as well, so there’s that.

The dialogue is half-scripted and half-stuttered in the actors’ attempts at improvisation. As a result, personal enjoyment of the film is dependent on whether one still finds Black and Cera to be amusing on their own terms, regardless of what year the actors are living in. And the truth is, both of them are still humorous at times, especially in the early scenes when they play off each other within the confines of their primitive village (the “Jackal Dance” is a highlight).

Unfortunately, the supporting cast is mostly disappointing. Cross, usually a scene-stealer in his roles, is gratingly unfunny here as he pushes Cain’s sociopathic tendencies to the breaking point. Others, like Oliver Platt (“Frost/Nixon”) as a grotesque, sexually charged high priest, elicit mixtures of chuckles and cringes. It’s the failure of the cast to work effectively with Black and Cera that places this movie several steps below “History of the World” in the ancient-times-comedy roster, and so far below “Life of Brian” that it’s not worthy of being liberated by the Judean People’s Front.

Take a minute now to consider Cera’s freakishly smooth legs. The actor is 21 years old now, and yet his legs (frequently noticeable in “Year One” thanks to costumes that cut off at the thighs) still look the same as they did during his “Arrested Development” days, when they once passed for a woman’s. Does he shave his legs to maintain a youthful lack of masculinity? Or are his hairs digitally removed in post-production? In either equally disturbing case, Cera should be warned that his well-trodden, high-voiced, hairless persona — the one that the producers of “Year One” are so desperate to tap into here — is not going to last forever. One of these days, his voice will crack.

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