On Fox TV’s long-defunct “The Ben Stiller Show,” one of the more inspired sketches featured Janeane Garofalo as a B- high school student who travels back in time, but is rendered helpless by her nominal knowledge of history. That fictitious doofus could well have written “Year One,” a slapdash comedy that boasts far too many talented people for something so tedious.
Following in the sandals of such dubious past efforts as “History of the World: Part I” and “Wholly Moses!,” “Year One” seeks to wring laughs from lampooning biblical tales. But it doesn’t even exert enough energy to learn much about what it purports to satirize.
In the script by director Harold Ramis (“Analyze That”) and co-writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (TV’s “The Office”), there once was a time when Neanderthal men, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and Sodom and Gomorrah all existed side by side. As long as the filmmakers weren’t encumbered by, say, a scintilla of logic, why not also toss in some pilgrims and a few Bolsheviks? The movie makes the “Bill & Ted” franchise look scholarly by comparison.
Jack Black (“Tropic Thunder”) is Zed, an incompetent but absurdly confident hunter who is banished from his tribe after he eats fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge. He is joined by his nebbishy best friend, Oh (Michael Cera, “Superbad”), a self-described “self-loathing gatherer,” and together, the pair sets out to see what slapstick and shameless one-liners await them.
They stumble upon some momentous occasions. First, they meet a hothead named Cain (David Cross, “Kung Fu Panda”) just as he’s in the acting of killing brother Abel (Paul Rudd, “I Love You, Man”). Later, Zed and Oh bump into Abraham (Hank Azaria, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”) about to sacrifice his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, “Role Models”). The papyrus-thin plot doesn’t get more ambitious than that, eventually leading our heroes to the wicked city of Sodom and the inevitable “what happens in Sodom, stays in Sodom” quip.
Cue the groans. Director Ramis’ portfolio includes such first-rate comedies as “Caddyshack” and the brilliant “Groundhog Day,” but here he doesn’t aim beyond the toilet bowl. You know where things are headed when a comedy resorts to gags about nibbling feces or getting doused in urine. One can almost see the flop sweat pouring off the screen.
The leads clock in for their signature shtick. Black is amusing enough with his mugging and suggestively raised eyebrows, while Cera makes the most of his sidekick role as the neurotic moping his way through less-sensitive times. A host of supporting players fare less well. Oliver Platt (“Frost/Nixon”) leapfrogs over over-the-top as a fey high priest, while Cross is just plain obnoxious as Cain.
Only Azaria scores consistent laughs as a half-crazed, circumcision-obsessed Abraham. “Wait right there,” he tells Zed and Oh shortly after inviting them to his camp, “I’ll be back to cut your penises “¦ just the tip of it.”
“Year One” would have benefited from similar trimming.