"Year One'' takes a charmless trip back in time
When the movie summer of 2009 is writ in the annals, Hank Azaria may turn out to have been its secret star. Certainly he deserves a plaque for most saves. He alone made “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian’’ bearable as the prissy evil pharaoh, and his handful of scenes as the biblical patriarch Abraham - promising mass circumcisions followed by wine and sponge cake for everyone - offer the only laughs in the endless plain of unfunny that is “Year One.’’
Unfortunately for us, the stars of the movie are Jack Black and Michael Cera, playing two cavemen, Zed and Oh, who wander off the grid into various early civilizations. Cera’s dreamy geekboy sex appeal is still working for him - barely - but Black is way past his expiration date. The actor’s unvarying comic shtick - blubbery egotism and over-enunciated dude catchphrases - has never seemed feebler.
The movie mulches recent movies like “Apocalypto’’ and “10,000 B.C.’’ with a big serving of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,’’ minus the brains. Zed and Oh are failures as either hunters or gatherers, and anyway, Zed has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge (not that you can tell), so he and Oh are exiled to the mountains and beyond. First stop is Bible-land, where they witness Cain (David Cross, annoying) slaying Abel (Paul Rudd, here and gone) and stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the raging nerd from “Superbad’’).
Then we’re off to a suspiciously Roman-looking Sodom, with a bad king (Xander Berkeley), a hot-to-trot princess (Olivia Wilde), a poofter bear of a high priest (Oliver Platt under pounds of makeup), and the heroes’ tribemates taken as slaves, including true loves Maya (June Diana Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple). A promising orgy scene with Cera spray-painted gold gets diverted into endless giggly-pansy jokes involving Oh, the priest, and hot oil.
There’s also the scene where Zed eats a turd, and the bit in which Oh, hanging upside down in a dungeon, urinates on his own face. Are you laughing yet? The problems with “Year One’’ are easy to identify: the script, the direction, the editing, the performances. Under the hand of director Harold Ramis (whose “Groundhog Day’’ is looking more and more like a fluke), scenes stumble to a halt unfinished and the actors are forced to vamp in the void. Some, like Azaria, are up to the challenge, and every so often the movie gets off a decent sight gag, like an ox-cart chase scene that whips along at 7 miles per hour.
Any good will the movie generates, though, is grated right back off by Black, whose obnoxiousness has lost whatever charm it once possessed. “Year One’’ matches him stride for puerile stride, playing like a lesser Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road’’ movie rewritten by a team of potty-obsessed 12-year-old boys. What it says about our own civilization is too depressing to think about.