There are people who are skeptical of Michael Cera, who think he has been playing very slight variations on himself since his Arrested Development days. In Juno he was the affable guy with the earnest delivery, who came across as self-effacing, but also so utterly unperturbed by his own absent chin that he somehow became plausible as a romantic lead. In Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the apparently innate peevishness, a whine that pays homage to the hunting mosquito, which had worked so well in Superbad, had begun to grate, but it was still clear that the movie would have been completely, instead of mostly, forgettable without him.
If success is measured only in how much your movie needs you, Cera has reached the peak of his career to date with Year One, a comedy set in biblical times. By playing once again the sweet, stammering smart guy, although this time in a Spinal Tap wig and caveman furs, Cera can't stop Year One from being a bad movie, but he does save it from being a catastrophe. He plays Oh, an inept gatherer who is best friends with an even more inept hunter named Zed (Jack Black). They're kicked out of their village the wisest act committed in that community since the decision to rub two sticks together and proceed to travel through a greatest hits of early religious history, culminating in a trip to Sodom.
Director Harold Ramis tries to emulate the zany comedy greats. In some of the Sodom scenes, there's a touch of Mel Brooks, and in the traveling scenes, a hint of Monty Python, especially when Oh and Zed meet up with fractious Cain (David Cross) and his brother Abel (Paul Rudd). But for every such hopeful moment, there are 20 more where Black licks feces, kebabs, nostrils or, in the absence of a clear target, the air in front of his face. There is no sign of his comic genius; his performance is all about tongue-waggling and showing the top portion of the whites of his eyes.
So it's up to Cera and a few of the bit players to try to make us laugh. The funnier (the superlative is not appropriate) scenes involve Hank Azaria as Abraham, who attempts a group circumcision on Zed, Oh and his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). "Trust me," he tells them. "It's going to be a very sleek look." Abraham is down on Sodom, as you can imagine, but that's where Zed and Oh are bound (there's a subplot revolving around rescuing the women they love from slavery). They meet up again with Cain (he's a running joke, but in Cross's cheerfully detestable hands, a bad one), who leads them on a tour of the city. "You know what's the best part about Sodom?" Cain says. "The sodomy!"
Ramis and co-writer Gene Stupnitsky clearly think the best thing about setting a movie in Sodom is the opportunity for jokes about sodomy. They trot out bananas being eaten seductively by prostitutes, a horny high priest (played to the hilt by Oliver Platt, in more eye makeup than Liza Minnelli) who has his eye on Oh and even a sheep joke. Vulgarity can be a dazzlingly pleasurable thing in comedy. But there's something very sad about Year One's vulgarity. It's desperate. The movie is one long snigger. Cera is the only aspect of it that doesn't feel graceless and defeated. "I'm just minding my own business," he seems to say. "Doing my thing." It might be one-note, but at least it's in the key of funny.