Apocalypse, celebrities, cinema, comedies, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, dark comedies, end of the world, Film, Hollywood, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, meta-films, Michael Cera, Movies, Seth Rogen, This is the End
Any film that delves into the metaphysics of storytelling/genre automatically sets itself up with a big handicap. When done properly, a film like that can blow up a genre from the inside-out, revealing nuances and tropes that only a hardcore fan would ever appreciate. Wes Craven did this, with some success, in his Scream franchise (full disclosure: I’ve never been a big fan) and Joss Whedon did it to spectacular effect in Cabin in the Woods. The Airplane films were great examples of self-referential comedies that also succeeded in commenting on their source materials. Less successfully, we have things like the Scary Movie franchise and any of the endless low-brow offerings that slavishly parody current films (Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie, et al). These are films that understand only the basest level of what they seek to mock: if the little girl in The Exorcist barfed up a gallon in the original, make her barf up an airplane hangar in the parody. You know…the easy way out.
If making a meta-film about a particular genre or subject is difficult, how much more difficult must it be to make a meta-film about actual, real people? For my money, I can think of very few films that have even attempted this, much less pulled it off. Spike Jonze gave us the head-scratcher that was Being John Malkovich and (somehow) wormed his way into the cultural zeitgeist. More recently, we had A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III which, although not explicitly about lead Charlie Sheen, was pretty obviously about Charlie Sheen.
The big problem, in some ways, is that the average audience member has absolutely no connection with people like John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen: we only have their films, live appearances and tabloid gossip to give us any sort of indication as to their actual personalities. Since there’s an inherent element of classism to most of our preconceived notions on celebrities, it’s always nice when these fine men and women reinforce our opinions. We’d like to think that Sheen is as much of a loose cannon in real life as he was in his many cinematic appearances: all sources seem to point to “yes.” We’d like to believe that Tom Hanks is as nice in real life as his endless film portrayals of such seem to indicate: not much to indicate the contrary, at least thus far.
How best, then, to head off any criticism of your personality/values/actions? Why, beat the naysayers to the punch, that’s how! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what writer/actor and now director Seth Rogen has done with This is the End. By presenting himself and his cadre of famous comedian friends (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Michael Cera) as being, essentially, as obnoxious as many people probably assume they are, he’s taken the words right out of our mouths and, in the process, crafted one of the funniest, smartest meta-films in quite some time.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty simple: Jay Baruchel has come to Los Angeles to visit his (presumed) best friend, Seth Rogen. Jay’s not much for the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, whereas Seth appears to have made himself pretty happy with mover-and-shaker party monsters like James Franco and Michael Cera. As Jay and Seth bicker over the changing nature of their friendship, something sort of significant happens: the Rapture. Once all of the “good” people are gone, Jay, Seth and their egotistical friends are left with, literally, Hell on earth. They must do all they can to avoid flaming bottomless pits, hell-hounds and the Devil himself, all while trying to put back together the pieces of their shattered lives. And keep McBride from eating all the goddamn food, of course.
Let’s just get the bad stuff out of the way first, shall we? For my money, there was a bit more bathroom humor in this than I normally care for: chalk this up to personal preference but there it is. There was also a tendency for the effects to vacillate between really effective and kinda dodgy, with the climax of the film sporting the majority of the dodgy moments. I also wish they had left the possession subplot on the cutting-room floor. I realize why they did it (set up a parallel between the affected character’s pre-/post-possession behaviour) but it dragged a bit and ended up yielding more gross and/or unnecessary moments than it did treasures.
And that, friends and neighbors, is just about as negative as I can really go with This is the End. Everything else in the film works, either spectacularly well or at least well enough to get you to the next audacious moment. What to single out…what to single out…well, let’s start with the razor-sharp dialogue. Forget all of the Hollyweird parody (which is, admittedly, very funny): This is the End is one great line after another. From the subtle (“Your references are out of control”: a reverent Jonah Hill to Jay; Seth’s classic explanation of gluten as a generic term for anything bad or unhealthy) to the ridiculously underplayed (“So, last night, something not chill happened…”: one of the characters after being raped by a demon) to the absolutely outrageous (“I call him Channing Tate-YUM!”), This is the End is one laugh-out-loud line after another. Truth be told, I was often laughing so hard from one scene to the next that I would miss what was (I’m sure) even more funny lines: this is definitely something that could benefit from repeat viewings.
If This is the End were just great dialogue, however, we’d still only have an interesting experiment. Rogen, however, has made damn sure that he and his famous friends have enough stuff going on to last through ten apocalypses. We get Michael Cera as the most amazing, sleazy, creepy character ever created (please, please, please let this be his true self! Please!); Craig Robinson singing “Take Off Your Panties” to Rihanna in the middle of a crowded party, complete with merciless come-back; Craig and Jay fighting a giant monster dog (shades of Ghostbusters); a kitchen-sink reenactment of Pineapple Express 2 (almost worth the price of admission on its own); Danny McBride making one of the top-five entrances in the history of cinema (no hyperbole: it really was that good of an entrance); Jonah sleeping “Scarface-style” with Jay and Seth; James Franco and McBride having an imaginary “cum fight” (really must be seen to be believed); an armed and dangerous Emma Watson and one of the best uses of “I Will Always Love You” ever committed to film. Ever.
Is This is the End a perfect film? Far from it. Unlike something like Tucker & Dale vs Evil, for example, This is the End spends a pretty fair amount of its time spinning wheels (they’re funny wheels, don’t get me wrong, but they do tend to go round and round and round and…). It’s a longish film (almost two hours) which is always a dangerous tack for a comedy, especially one with such a high energy level. Ultimately, though, these are pretty minor quibbles.
I went in to this expecting some mindless, good-natured celebrity-bashing (albeit bashing administered by those being bashed, similar to Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes victims handing him lists of bullet-points before the ceremony) and some goofy end-of-the-world humor but was pleasantly surprised to find much more. At its heart, This is the End is really about Jay and Seth’s (on-air, at least) friendship and the ways in which we all much continue to grow as people. That a message this sweet and positive can be crammed in between multiple dick and Exorcist jokes is, if you think about it, something of a modern miracle. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t take long for Seth and the guys to pull their cinematic alter-egos out of mothballs and give this whole thing another shot.
I, for one, would love to see these goons pull off a good ol’ fashioned bank heist: somebody get Rogen working on that, stat!