This Is the End runs on some delicious self-critique – of the human race in general, the Hollywood variety specifically and some of that town’s more familiar comedy stars in particular. It’s excoriating, and hilarious.
Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel (playing themselves as everyone in the film does) are the central pair, longtime friends who are at an odd point in their relationship. While Rogen has achieved widespread fame and gotten comfortable on the Hollywood scene, the lesser-known Baruchel has remained at a distance, visiting Los Angeles only when he has to. Hoping to bridge the gap between friends old and new during Jay’s latest trip to L.A., Seth drags him to a housewarming party at the lavish new home of James Franco.
What’s amusing about This Is the End is the way each actor either plays up or plays against their public persona. And so we learn that Franco, (who seems to be having the most fun with this experiment) has not only purchased his new digs but also designed the home himself. Going the opposite route and playing against type is Michael Cera, who refashions himself as a raving coke fiend.
This Is the End isn’t all broad caricature, though. At its heart is Seth and Jay’s friendship, a dynamic that both stars give their full, actorly attention (Baruchel is especially good as an introvert whose discomfort gets reconstituted as antagonism). At the party, where Seth is showered with genuine welcome, Jay endures faux compliments from members of Seth’s new gang (especially a fey Jonah Hill) and awkward conversations with the likes of Emma Watson (having a great non-Harry Potter year, what with this and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring).
I could have watched a whole movie of just this. With its roaming camera (Rogen makes his directorial debut alongside longtime screenwriting partner Evan Goldberg) and sharp ensemble cast, it has the feel of a younger, fouler version of Robert Altman’s The Player. But This Is the End has bigger things on its mind than this one party. While out on a cigarette run and a break from the party’s overwhelming social demands, all hell breaks loose around Seth and Jay. Literally. This is The End, as its title suggests, is interrupted by the apocalypse.
There’s a delirious rush to the eagerness with which This Is the End dispenses with the “names” in its cast.
Instead of sidetracking the movie, however, this development puts one of its themes – the brazen selfishness of these screen stars – in stark relief. When a volcanic sinkhole opens in Franco’s front yard and people start to get swallowed up, it’s every celebrity for him or herself (Paul Rudd has an amusingly heartless cameo here). There’s a delirious rush to the eagerness with which This Is the End dispenses with the “names” in its cast, as if it’s emphasizing the impermanence and unimportance of the movie business, at least in the grand scheme of things. If Hollywood’s players watched this before the Oscars each year, I have a feeling the ceremony would be significantly less self-satisfied and infinitely more fun.
By the time that sinkhole settles down, the cast list has been considerably shortened, leaving a small group barricaded and petrified in Franco’s home: Seth, Jay, Jonah, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and the host himself. What follows is a crude, hysterical variation on Survivor, with petty rivalries, shameless vanity and desperate insecurity igniting all sorts of flare-ups. Among the highlights: a debate over how to split the last remaining Milky Way bar; a wildly escalating shouting matching between Franco and McBride over a porn magazine; a moral quandary over whether or not to let in a survivor who comes to the front door. Their delay results in the man’s decapitation and a ghoulishly comic game of soccer with his head. (Kudos to whoever thought to add those shots from the rolling head’s POV.)
There are other, quieter moments in This Is the End that could pass for introspection. Once this group finally comes to terms with the fact that the apocalypse is upon them, the question of religion arises and gets the same comedic treatment as everything else in the film. Some might quibble with the movie’s eschatology, but I’ve heard worse explanations of the Trinity than Franco’s: “Like Neapolitan ice cream – three flavors in one!”
Another religious notion – the idea of giving of oneself – also comes into play in the climax, when these guys conclude that their lives of selfishness have resulted in their being left behind while all the “good” people have been taken to heaven. If there is hope for Seth and Jay, then, it lies in the dilemma they faced at the film’s beginning: how to set their egos aside and put their friendship ahead of their individual concerns. For a movie whose climax involves a giant demon getting the John Bobbitt treatment via a heavenly shaft of light, This Is the End is actually kind of sweet.