Year One is silly. But that’s a lot of the point. The plot, characters, worldview—all take a backseat to the film’s ultimate goal: inducing laughter.
The loose plot centers upon two cavemen (played by Jack Black and Michael Cera) who are driven from their village and forced into a series of stock comedy scenarios. In the process, they encounter most of the persons and events of Genesis’ first 20 chapters. Cain’s murder of Abel, the almost sacrifice of Isaac (as well as his circumcision), and the city of Sodom all make appearances.
The portrayal of these portions of Scripture are nothing near reverent; however, they are so altered from the Biblical account as to be often nearly unrecognizable. Further, the intention is much less to mock the Old Testament as it is to use it as background for Jack Black and Michael Cera’s antics. One could be insulted, but it is more ancient organized religion in general than the Old Testament in particular that comprises the comic target.
If the point of the movie keeps going back to the laughs, we must ask whether its highest purpose succeeds. The answer is sometimes but not often. The fault does not truly fall upon the actors. Cera continues to play the same basic role as his previous films— the quiet, passive prototype of the anti-manly man. While he does so in his usually endearing and comical way, the lack of acting breadth is beginning to wear. Jack Black also does well with what he is given. His timing, physical motions, and facial expressions all continue to show his adeptness as a comic actor.
The problem really stems from a dearth of comic material. The jokes, while delivered well, are rarely that funny. And the fact is that funny moments do not make a funny movie. The plot is so loose that what actually is laughable cannot connect with the rest of the film. The viewer quickly quits caring about the plot or characters and can only wait for the occasional gag. It didn’t have to be that way. The material screams for more subtle, ironic, and developed humor. Alas, the film is too impatient and at times desperate to bring such laughs out.
Year One’s silliness and lack of a real plot might appear to preclude any consideration by a believer. After all, why even deal with a film that makes light of Biblical stories? In spite of itself, Year One does say something. Jack Black’s character seeks purpose and worth beyond the village life of a hunter or gatherer (neither of which he does well). He considers himself “chosen” for some greater task, ordained possibly by God (or the gods).
This search becomes a bigger quest for life’s purpose in general. Several options are put forward. One possible meaning comes from the various forms of organized religion. God or the gods determine worth and purpose for humanity. Many of Sodom’s citizens and Biblical characters such as Abraham make this argument on behalf of their deities.
The second view comes through Cera’s character. In the movie’s most thoughtful scene, Cera’s despondence pushes him to question whether any god exists at all. Jack Black responds that God must exist because without him nothing has any purpose, everything is random. Cera counters that maybe life itself is nothing but random, purposeless existence. Life’s meaning is actually meaningless.
The final view comes toward the end of the film. Jack Black denies the opportunity to be feared and worshipped by those who now believe him to be “chosen.” He instead says that each human being should make his own destiny and live according to it.
Of these views, the last comes closest to the film’s own intended position. The answers of organized religion are spoken of as containing too much superstition and violence. Old pagan practices such as sacrificing virgins and reading signs from animal entrails get particularly vicious treatment here. Yet Cera’s denial of purpose is also rejected. The film sees that a purposeless life is really a worthless life. Instead, Year One wants us to define our own meaning and then seek to realize it.
In the end, even this solution cannot hold up within the film. Jack Black’s rebuttal to Cera—that God is the necessary prerequisite to purpose and worth—is never refuted. Yet if God must exist to assure purpose and worth, it must be because he is their author. If he is their author, then Black’s appeal for all to define their own destiny is both impossible and foolish. Only God can and should do so.
Year One, however unintentionally, does leave a footing for the Gospel. Though it makes light of the Biblical accounts pointing to the true God, it cannot escape the truth that God is necessary for purpose and worth. The film thus understands that such a necessary God must not only exist; he must be sought by a humanity hungry to know its purpose and worth. The film fails to realize it, but only by correctly understanding the God of Genesis can this hunger be fed.