This is the End: Seeking Six Friends For the End of the World

It's not a spoiler to say that the world really is ending in the all-star comedy This is the End. This isn't an artificial apocalypse or a meta mega-disaster designed to complement the movie's already-heightened level of reality that comes with its cast -- including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride -- playing themselves (albeit slightly tweaked versions of themselves) rather than fictional characters. The film, which Rogen wrote and directed his longtime creative partner Evan Goldberg, takes the end of days seriously... so seriously that the level of violence (to say nothing of the body count) is higher than you might expect for a warm weather comedy. Fortunately, much of what's unfolding in the shadow of the apocalypse is also seriously funny, so even though the world as we know it is over, it's ending with laughter rather than a whimper.

Going into This Is the End, I admit to being fairly skeptical about the "stars playing themselves" conceit, with images of an overlong Funny or Die skit flashing before my eyes. (The movie does have viral origins; it's a feature-length version of a YouTube short that Baruchel and Rogen starred in and once again involved the end of the world.) And there are a number (perhaps too many) references to the actors' respective public images, from Franco's oft-remarked upon indeterminate sexuality to Hill's prickly personality in interviews like this one. But credit where credit's due: Rogen and Goldberg have successfully managed to transform their pals into actual dramatic characters, complete with their own narrative arcs. In fact, even though the movie's structure is fairly episodic, there's a distinct emotional throughline holding it together, one that's rooted in a surprisingly touching and well-rendered relationship.

I'm referring to the relationship between Seth and Jay, who, in real life and in the movie, are good pals whose friendship is rooted in their shared Canadian heritage, their history with Judd Apatow and their shared idea of what constitutes a killer weekend: getting high and playing video games. There's a rift brewing in their onscreen lives, though; while Seth has made the permanent movie to L.A. and acquired a new group of pals, Jay is reluctant to leave Canada, only traveling to Hollywood when it's absolutely essential. And when he does swoop into town, he prefers not to spend time with Rogen's new crew, who treat him as the odd man out. Both Seth and Jay know that their once rock-solid friendship is crumbling, but aren't sure how to fix it, instead hoping that if they ignore the problem, it'll just go away.

It's under these tenuous circumstances that they make the pilgrimage to a party at Franco's oh-so-hip abode, where the entire population of Gen Y Hollywood has assembled -- look, there's Michael Cera! Ooo, it's Emma Watson! Look, Rihanna's over there! And hey, is that Jason Segel? -- for yet another all-night rager. Before the bacchanal can reach truly epic proportions, it's rudely interrupted by a series of literally earth-shattering events; the sky appears to be on fire, the ground opens up beneath peoples' feet and other folks vanish into the sky riding on beams of while light. Soon, the only celebrities left alive in Franco's house, and possibly all of Los Angeles, are the four stars of Pineapple Express (you can't help but wonder whether the only reason Robinson and McBride are in the movie is to allow for the great Pineapple Express II gag that comes midway through), the Oscar nominated co-star of Moneyball and the dude who was the lead in Undeclared a decade ago. In normal circumstances, Jay wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with these guys (especially Jonah) for a prolonged stretch of time. But in this particular case, he'd likely be dead without them.

It's Jay who clues into the fact that, far from just a freak series of natural disasters, the sextet are living through the Apocalypse as outlined in the bible, a suspicion that's eventually confirmed by the sighting of a monstrous, likely hellspawned creature skulking around Franco's miraculously still-standing bachelor pad. The rest of the film -- and the bulk of the comedy -- then becomes a morality play, as the crew wrestles with questions of good versus evil, right versus wrong and being saved versus being damned... in the least serious way possible, of course. Considering his general screen persona (not to mention the popularity of Eastbound & Down), it shouldn't be a surprise that McBride comes to function as the devil in their midst, a role he plays to the hilt. But the other guys aren't exactly sterling examples of selflessness either; if they were, they would have been rocketed up to heaven rather than left behind. (It is a little odd that the movie never touches on the fact that two of the survivors -- Seth and Jonah -- hail from Jewish backgrounds and thus wouldn't necessarily subscribe to the movie's overridingly Christian assumptions of heaven and hell.) If the movie has a point beyond making the audience laugh as often as possible, it's about the way that the characters rediscovers that age-old Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you."

With six stars to service, This Is the End has its fair share of poorly conceived and executed bits of business. For example, I don't think that Goldberg and Rogen ever quite cracked their version of "Jonah Hill," presented here as a giant dick who is trying hard not to be a giant dick anymore. (Except he still totally is.) It's a high-concept approach that winds up hamstringing Hill's comic talents instead of putting them to full use. There's also an extended riff on The Exorcist that replaces screaming and shouting for actual humor. (It is preceded by a hilarious homage to Rosemary's Baby, so that's one thing working in its favor.) Working behind the camera for the first time, Rogen and Goldberg don't prove themselves to be natural-born filmmakers either; the funniest gags here are verbal, rather than visual and some of the bigger sequences are chaotically filmed and cut together in a jumble. (Then again, all comics-turned-directors have to start somewhere. The Producers and Take the Money and Run weren't exactly Young Frankenstein or Manhattan either.) For the most part, though, I had a grand old time at this apocalypse, where 75-80% of the jokes land and the cast's eager-to-please energy, along with the genuine unpredictability about what's going to happen next and who it might involve (given the depth of Rogen's rolodex, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are some big-name cameos in store), mostly carry you through the gags that fall short. It's almost a shame that the world had to end; I'd happily watch another movie that reunites this exact same gang of "characters." Hey... how about a prequel?

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