Seth Rogen, James Franco and pals team up to face down the apocalypse. But is the new comedy meta-comedy genius, or self-indulgent nonsense?
Written & Directed by: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Emma Watson and Michael Cera
Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence. Running Time: 106 Minutes
Chances are, many of you have already made up your mind about This Is the End. If you’re a fan of most, or the entire particular group of actors that populate this movie – a comedic Rat Pack I’ve taken to referring to as “the Apatow Gang” – then the idea of watching them locked inside a house for near two hours, riffing on each other, probably sounds like comedy nirvana. If, however, these guys aren’t really your cup of tea, then I imagine the idea of watching a movie with this many of them – and playing themselves, no less – sounds like a pure nightmare.
To the former group, I'll simply say you almost certainly will love this movie. In fact, it might just be one of your favorite comedies of the last few years, as you are going to get everything you expect from the film, and probably even a little more. As for the latter group, well, I don’t know if I could honestly say this movie won’t annoy you at times – but I would truthfully stress that This Is the End is, to its credit, much more than the one-joke, “famous actors play themselves surviving an apocalypse” premise that much of the initial press and trailers may have led you to believe.
Written and directed by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (and loosely adapted from a 2007 short film entitled Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse), This Is the End primarily focuses on Rogen and Jay Baruchel (the least famous of the bunch, though this film should help fix that).Their friendship of numerous years has recently become strained due to Rogen moving to L.A. and immersing himself in the Hollywood lifestyle while Baruchel - not really a fan of that scene - has instead set up residence in New York City. In an attempt to mend the relationship, Baruchel visits Rogen for what he assumes will be a weekend of bonding with just the two of them, only to dishearteningly earn that Rogen instead plans for the two of them to attend James Franco’s star-studded housewarming party.
It is at this party where the impressive audaciousness of the film’s gimmick becomes clear, as we are treated to numerous celebrities like Rihanna, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Aziz Ansari playing exaggerated versions of themselves, gleefully diving into the notion of vain, self-obsessed celebrity that has permeated our culture. Though Michael Cera is the undeniable scene-stealer here (playing himself as an unpleasant, coked-out degenerate), this whole section is a blast, and with this many funny people in one room at one time, we can only imagine how much great improv ended up on the cutting room floor (something tells me the DVD release of this film will have a lot of extra footage from this sequence).
Things take a nasty turn, however, when what at first appears to be a violent earthquake suddenly rocks L.A. – all is not as it seems, though, as Baruchel witnesses mysterious blue beams of light whisking numerous strangers up into the heavens. No such luck for our partygoers, however, and soon a great number of them are brutally dispatched when a giant sinkhole opens up in front of Franco’s new home. As L.A. plunges further into a new hellish reality, Franco, Rogen, and Baruchel are joined by fellow survivors Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson, holed up in Franco’s home, waiting for rescue they’re not entirely sure is even coming, and debating whether or not this is truly the biblical Apocalypse that Baruchel seems convinced it is. Not surprisingly, tensions soon mount among the group, particularly when they are joined by the loutish Danny McBride, who shows surprisingly little concern for concepts like teamwork and proper food and water rationing.
Most of the attention this film has garnered has focused on the stunt idea of having everyone play themselves, and for good reason. It’s a crazy, but rewarding move that instantly sets the film apart from most other comedies you’ve seen. But I also wonder if the filmmakers haven’t made a slight mistake by not also making it more clear what this movie really is: a batshit-insane apocalyptic horror-comedy, complete with horrific (but also hilarious) violence, copious amounts of blood and guts, monsters and surprisingly good special effects. Seriously, there are visual effects and action sequences in this that put a lot of recent “real” horror movies to shame, and besides coming up with the overall idea and writing the screenplay, Rogen and Goldberg deserve quite a bit of credit for an impressive directorial debut.
There are two things that This Is the End does particularly well. One is that this is the rare modern comedy that hasn’t spoiled all its best bits and surprises in the trailers. Now, that may vary depending on how many of the released clips you have watched leading up to the release, but for the most part the film’s funniest jokes and two excellent cameos (one of which, concerning a former co-star of Hill’s, is perhaps the film’s biggest laugh) have remained refreshingly unspoiled.
The other thing the movie gets right, surprisingly enough, is not going overboard with the meta-comedy that it is primarily being sold on. That’s not to say that stuff isn’t here. It certainly is – the guys don’t hesitate to poke fun at their own and each other’s public personas (such as Franco’s rep as a pretentious “artist”) and failed projects (Green Hornet and Your Highness take shots, for instance), and there are obviously certain jokes that only work because they are playing themselves (like a great bit where the guys film their own improvised Pineapple Express sequel to stave off boredom). But I think a great deal of the film would work just as well if they were actually playing fictional characters instead of themselves. Taking a note from other successful horror comedies, Rogen and Goldberg wisely allow the majority of the humor to form as a result of the insane and, at times, unbelievably gruesome predicaments the characters find themselves in. In these moments the “meta” aspect of the film is often forgotten, and instead it just becomes a very funny apocalypse comedy, mining terrific hilarity not just out of the paranoia and claustrophobia that overtakes the group, but even eventually also out of demonic possessions, exorcisms, monsters, and cannibalism.
Of course, as much as I admittedly laughed-out-loud to scenes of demons raping well-known actors and the guys engaging in an unwitting impromptu game of soccer with a decapitated head, all of the blood, guts and other bodily fluids comedy wouldn’t really amount to much in the end if there wasn’t an actual beating heart at the center of it all. And here, again, This Is the End scores. Having learned at the altar of Judd Apatow – the master of merging dick jokes with an actual human emotions – Rogen, Goldberg and the majority of this cast have almost always seemed to seek out or produce comedies that actually make us feel connected to the characters within, comedies with the kind of heart missing from more cynical fare like the Hangover series. There’s actually a surprisingly sweet and even moral message moving this thing along, and it works remarkably well because all of these guys, even when they’re playing asshole versions of themselves, still remain undeniably likable and charming onscreen.
Like Superbad or Pineapple Express before it, The Is the End is very much concerned with male friendship and men’s frequent inability to properly nurture those relationships – especially in the Rogen-Baruchel friendship at the story’s center, but also eventually among the entire group. If I do have a complaint about the “dude-bro” heart of the film, however, it’s that – at a time when there are a lot of hilarious female comedians out there – it’s kind of a shame to see only Mindy Kaling show up, and even then only for a few minutes (true, Emma Watson scores some laughs in a brief appearance, as well, but it’s more due to the shock of seeing her wielding an ax and dropping F-bombs than to her delivering any actual “jokes”). I suppose I get that this is another of those “male bonding” movies that these guys are known for, but if Rogen and Goldberg were ever wondering if there is any sort of sequel potential to this movie, might I suggest a parallel film that shows what Aubrey Plaza, Lizzy Caplan, Allison Brie, Emma Stone, Casey Wilson, Jane Lynch and others are up to at the same time?
To talk more about specific things I liked about the film would be to risk spoiling those same best jokes and surprises that I commended them for keeping secret, so I won’t elaborate much more. But I will say this - for me, This Is the End is this year’s 21 Jump Street: a comedy I was already kind of looking forward to, but that ended up highly exceeding my expectations on almost every level. Sure, the narrative is a little sloppy at times, and the comedy loses a little steam for a brief run in the middle, but the movie as a whole is just so damn crazy, and the jokes hit way more than they miss - it's just an extremely well-done and surprisingly creative comedy. In fact, the only thing stopping me from saying it will be the best comedy of the year is knowing that Edgar Wright’s World’s End is coming this August. But, still, to even say this film will be giving Wright’s movie a run for its money is one hell of a compliment.
The 411: More ambitious than it is perhaps being given credit for, This Is the End is an impressive feat: a skillful blending of meta-comedy - sure to please fans of its cast - with surprisingly strong horror-comedy elements, including gleefully gruesome violence and much-better-than-you-would-expect special effects. Though it sags in the middle, and might have benefited from a bit more of a female presence, it's still consistently hilarious while at the same time never sacrificing its emotional heart. Easily one of the best comedies any of these guys have been involved with - and given this cast, that's saying something.