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Jokes around since ‘Year One’

FILM CRITIC

Ever wonder what would happen if you locked some screenwriters in a room with a history of man, an Old Testament, some really potent pot and a tape recorder? Ever wonder what would happen if that were made into a movie?

“Year One,” the new buddy comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, seems to be trying to answer these burning questions in this turn-back-the-clock, take-a-look-at-our- ancestors fable with fart jokes.

In the beginning there were nerds, or so it would seem as we first check in on the mud-and-dung village where Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) live with their loin-clothed brethren.

Zed’s a terrible hunter, Oh isn’t much of a gatherer, and neither is having any luck with girls.

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As history has shown us time and again, that sort of discontent only leads to trouble, and with that tree of forbidden fruit in the garden, the temptation to taste is just too much for Zed to bear.

One bite, one burned village and one banishment later, the boys are off to explore the world with a let’s-backpack-through-Europe kind of verve.

As this is still in that dark time before Mapquest, Zed and Oh get lost a lot once they discover that the Earth isn’t flat. You have to wonder if that’s what happened to director Harold Ramis too, the mind behind such memorable comedies as “Ghostbusters” and the especially wonderful “Groundhog Day.”

Every time Ramis, who wrote the film with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (and let me just say that I actually have no idea if drugs were really used in the writing of this film), gets backed into a corner, he just cuts and runs, or has Zed and Oh do it for him. So when a cougar is about to attack a completely helpless Oh, the screen goes dark and suddenly it’s morning and Oh has a few scratches.

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Moments like this are confusing only because there are so very many scenes in “Year One” that are such absolute foolishness that you wonder why the filmmakers worried about how the cougar fight could be explained.

The film is built to play to the costars’ strengths: Zed has a hero complex, while Oh’s issues are with inferiority. As a result, we get a lot of Black doing his lip-curling, sinister-smiling, chest-beating pronouncements of manhood thing.

Meanwhile Cera plays counterpoint with his self-deprecating, I’m-not-sure-I-should-even-be-saying-this shtick, which turns out to be charming even when the movie is not.

As they stumble through this crazy world, Zed and Oh bump into Cain and Abel, where the guys get mixed up in that nasty sibling spat; they wade right into the circumcision debate with Abraham, after averting the sacrifice of his only son Isaac; they get picked up by Roman slavers; they eventually land in Sodom because it offers the possibility of so many more sex jokes than Gomorrah (that last part is just a guess).

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The film is littered with appearances from many comic yeomen including Oliver Platt as Sodom’s fey high priest, Hank Azaria as Abraham, Bill Hader as the village shaman in blackface, David Cross as Cain and an uncredited Paul Rudd as Abel, among others.

Cera and Black are great as sidekicks, but in “Year One” they don’t make it as leading men, and that’s a problem.

There is no real plot either; instead the narrative seems designed to get this prehistoric pair from one funny sketch to the next, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

There is plenty of lowbrow, knuckle-dragging humor; coupled with all the gay jokes, poop jokes, Jewish jokes and you’re-stupider-than-I-am jokes, the arrested-development crowd will no doubt be thoroughly entertained.

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Ramis has said he was inspired by Mel Brooks in “The 2000 Year Old Man” and a Cro-Magnon Man / Neanderthal Man improv he did years ago with Bill Murray and John Belushi, which sort of explains the antecedents for “Year One.” Though I still favor the room, recorder and pot theory as the genesis moment for this particular bit of nonsense.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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‘Year One’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: In general release

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