“Hunters think they’re so cool,” whines Oh (Michael Cera). “They don’t think this is challenging.” “This” would be the opposite of hunting, gathering, and “this” would be what Oh does daily. “This” also marks him as wussy, something like the opposite of cool. And “this” would be what he’d rather not be doing.
What you’d rather not be doing, during these first few minutes of Year One is watching. You’ve just seen, for instance, that Oh’s best friend and own opposite is Zed (Jack Black). A self-impressed hunter who tends not to hit boars with his spear but instead his fellow hunters (“Next time, don’t block my shot!”), Zed is an odious sort of best friend. Because Oh is too nice (or wussy) to call him out on his deceptions and cruelties, Zed uses him as a more or less supportive audience, or a “buddy,” according to Black and Cera’s NBA Finals ad. But even as Oh and Zed allude most visibly to Abbott and Costello, their comedy is less a matter of prude-crude contrast than crude-cruder. They are Paleolithic tribesmen, after all.
Frustrated by the incessant censures of his peers, Zed breaks out—into bible mythology. Deciding that it’s past time to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, munching more or less happily on a glowing orb (“Kind of a knowledgey taste”) in order to become the smartest man in the village. Oh notes that this is a “pretty low bar,” even as he is subjected to the indignity of the snake, namely, a big golden boa constrictor that winds around his torso and neck as if to crush him. It might be funny that Oh is worried for his life while his buddy is distracted by his new intelligence, but you’ll never know. The movie abandons the gag and cuts to the next scene.
This strategy—cutting away before a likely punchline—is Year One‘s preferred mode. This makes for a lot of stopping and starting, especially once Zed’s kicked out of the tribe and Oh tags along. On the road, they run into a series of biblical situations and characters, via a decidedly un-zany array of pee and poop jokes. They find Cain (David Cross) just as he’s about to kill his brother Abel (Paul Rudd) and Abraham (Hank Azaria), who happens to be raising his knife against a rather grown-up Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film makes clear enough that these acts of aggression are horrific and wrong too: Cain is straight-up psychotic (the buddies spend most of their time with him trying to avoid eye contact and pretending they see what he sees, for instance, that Abel walked into that stone Cain was holding) and Abraham is right in surmising that Zed is an emissary of God, sent to stay the execution (but not Abraham’s next self-assignment, the circumcision of any male who comes within reach of his knife—at this point, the boys run away, amid a swirl of penis-snipping jokes).
Embracing his new identity as “The Chosen,” Zed decides it’s his mission to save the comely tribesgirls he and Oh have crushes on. Maya (June Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple) have been made slaves in the palace of the King (Xander Berkeley), who conveniently resides in Sodom. Pleased to learn the city is full of “whores,” the boys rush in. Here they’re subjected to varieties of abuse and harassment—Zed spotted by the princess Inanna (Olivia Wilde), in search of a way to resist her bad dad, and Oh grabbed up by the High Priest (Oliver Platt), who likes to have his very hairy chest rubbed with oil, again and again. Though he protests that “It’s not what it looks like” when Zed happens by, Oh is once more marked as the gayish boy, his gatherer inclinations making him a target for bullies and homos alike.
It’s a tedious business, all this anxiety about sex and identity and, oh yes, rape and slavery. Though the film seems mostly determined to skewer self-serving Judeo-Christian myths, its critique is at once misogynist, heterosexist, and resolutely incoherent. All these frames probably cancel each other out, and it hardly matters whether Oh finds his way into Eema’s pants or the High Priest ends up in a fiery pit, sacrificed to the gods so God can win the day. Still, you wish that Tree of Knowledge had inspired just a bit of intelligence.