This Is the End Dir. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

[Sony Pictures; 2013]

Styles: comedy, horror
Others: Superbad, Funny People, The Rapture, Last Night

After their breakout hit Superbad, This Is the End is the logical conclusion of the work by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. The two met each other during Bar Mitzvah, and their common bond is oddly specific scatological humor. With its two characters named Seth and Evan, Superbad laid the foundation for a meta-examination of fraternal friendship. This Is the End takes the idea to its inevitable conclusion: all the actors play caricatures of themselves, and we’re led to believe there’s some degree of accuracy to the script. Rogen and Goldberg, who also shared directorial duties, compound the tension with their version of the apocalypse, one complete with demons and giant cocks.

Jay Baruchel is our entry point. He’s visiting Seth from Canada, and even with the success of Undeclared and How to Train Your Dragon, he’s a Hollywood outsider. Jay wants nothing more than to chill with his old friend: a long weekend of weed, pizza, and video games sounds perfect to him. But Seth is stuck between his roots and stardom, so he goads Jay to join him for a party at James Franco’s house. This is where Rogen and Goldberg lay on the many cameos: Michael Cera is a creepy letch who keeps hitting on Rihanna, while Emma Watson tries to shake her Harry Potter past. The party unspools at a predictable clip, at least until the sky opens up and it rains hellfire on the Hollywood Hills. A massive sinkhole eats Rihanna and Aziz Ansari, and soon it’s only Jay, Seth, James, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson. Danny McBride shows up, but of course nobody invited him.

It may be the end of the world outside, but This Is the End uses its primary setting as an opportunity to riff on cabin fever’s comic potential. There’s a lengthy discussion over who, precisely, gets to eat a Milky Way bar, and Craig shrewdly notes that actors lack the necessary hardness for this life-and-death situation. A lot of the jokes are predictable — of course there’s a dig at Jonah’s Academy Award nomination — but Rogen and Goldberg throw in a few surprises, too. To pass the time, the guys film a sequel to Pineapple Express, with Jonah playing Woody Harrelson. Danny is similar to the blowhard asshole he plays on Eastbound and Down, and he seems genuinely hurt after James yells at him for cooking what’s left of their food. The middle section starts to drag since all these “characters” are familiar, so the directors kick it into high gear when they approach the apocalyptic premise with inexorable logic.

Since all this was foretold in the Book of Revelations, Jay intuits what’s happening. He watches as people get raptured into heaven (Rogen and Goldberg envision a heavenly blue tractor beam), and thinks there is hope for him as well as the other guys. They don’t know exactly how to earn their one-way ticket to paradise, but their eventual answer also serves as an interesting metaphor for male bonding. The only way to achieve happiness, the filmmakers argue, is through compassion and some degree of sacrifice. Seth shows none of this when he first drags Jay to the party, but he’s a good guy (more or less) so he shows his true colors once the trappings of fame are immaterial. Not all the friends are good: Danny gleefully abandons morality and embraces cannibalism as if he’s always been looking for an excuse to do so. This Is the End does not exactly have a warm message — it’s far too irreverent for that — but like all films about the apocalypse, it understands how dire times are opportunity to showcase the extremes of humanity.

We should expect strong performances with this kind of material, and no actor has trouble playing a version of themselves. Chemistry matters more than any single performance and they all make it look easy. If they had any trouble with a particular scene, it’s probably because they were laughing too hard, not that they struggled with the right comic tone. And after Rogen and Goldberg wring the situation of all its dialogue-heavy potential, they shrewdly veer from one-liners to visual gags. The boldness of the special effects is a highlight: the same creative team who envisioned an entire subplot around dick drawings raise with the stakes with artfully-rendered CGI-genitalia. It’s hard to worry about the end of the world when a demon is walking around with an oversized dong, and the directors save their big guns (pun intended) when the characters are on the cusp of overstaying their welcome. It’s a canny decision, and suggests that the two childhood friends have potential as filmmakers.

This Is the End is the sort of movie that’s so high concept that it’s easy to guess whether it’s the right movie for you. Rogen and Goldberg have been fine-tuning their brand of humor for years, and aside from the odd cameo, there are few surprises in the types of scenes they write. It is by design that the movie will convert zero Rogen skeptics, yet he and his partner know how to please their audience of people like me whose senses of humor skew toward the infantile. This is The End spins its wheels a little — the middle section never bothers to escalate any tension — but like an old friend, the flaws are easy to forgive since it knows how make us double over with laughter.

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