The short review: In a cinematic landscape experiencing a drought of R-rated comedies, This Is The End is unbridled apocalyptic fun that lets both the actors and the audience in on the joke.
The long review: Zeitgeist is a funny thing, especially in Hollywood. Last year, everyone and their mother was wielding a bow and arrow on screen, as Katniss-mania seized the nation. This year, things are a bit bleaker, as films set during or after the apocalypse are popping up with greater frequency than pleas from Nigerian princes in my spam folder. For better or for worse, we’re culturally obsessed with our impending doom. And if the relative failures of films like Oblivion and After Earth tell us anything, it’s that we’d rather laugh about our collective destruction than wallow in it.
Are co-writers and first-time directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg cashing in on a trend? Not quite. This Is The End has been in the works, in one way or another, since 2007, when Jay Baruchel and Rogen starred in a short film, Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, a micro-sized version of the 2013 film. As the film’s star-studded cast saw their own stars rise, they finally accrued enough clout and goodwill from the studio system to convince Sony to give them $32 million to play themselves making dick jokes against a backdrop of brimstone, hellfire, and lavish lifestyles. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
The concept is simple: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and James Franco must band together and survive unspeakable horrors (both worldly and otherworldly) once the apocalypse breaks out during a celebrity-filled party at James Franco’s delightfully pretentious mansion. It’s a classic “bottle episode,” as much of the action is restricted to Franco’s estate-turned-fortress, which works to the improv-savvy ensemble’s advantage as their conversations and activities devolve into madness induced by forced proximity.
Playing funhouse mirror versions of themselves, the main cast seems to have a blast with their heightened personalities. In particular, James Franco’s Seth Rogen-obsessed modern art enthusiast, Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers-does-Mad Max, and Jonah Hill’s sensitive, overcompensating nice guy give straight men Rogen and Baruchel plenty of absurdity to play off of. No one is spared from scrutiny, as all the main characters are depicted as sniveling, self-interested cowards, a smart choice which keeps the whole affair from coming off as self-aggrandizing.
And then there’s Michael Cera, who may be the funniest part of the entire film. Known for being one of the nicest guys in the business, Cera appears as a cocaine-snorting, womanizing young Hollywood asshole who sees nothing wrong with goosing Rihanna, carrying on a mid-blowjob conversation or throwing uncut Peruvian cocaine into an unsuspecting Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s face. It’s a brilliant inversion of Cera in real life and makes for some of the film’s most memorable moments.
This Is The End plays it fast and loose, a quality which mostly serves it well, as evidenced by the improv-heavy scenes. When I spoke with Rogen, he told me that they would sometimes do 45-minute improvised takes, using the script as a vague guide for certain narrative signposts to follow. A few bits fall flat, but even when a joke doesn’t quite land, the bad taste is quickly washed away by a deluge of new, stakes-raising material that keeps you invested in the mostly unscripted action.
Although the film’s two big cameos have doubtless been spoiled – both appear in the film’s frenetic third act – they are some of the best uses of stunt casting I’ve seen all year (and yes, I’ve seen all of Arrested Development Season 4). If, after seeing This Is The End, the skies were to suddenly erupt in fire and giant horned demons stalked the earth with terrifying magma-covered dicks, I’d be okay with it, because it’s a damn good time, relentlessly funny and smugly self-deprecating in all the right ways. Besides, who doesn’t want to go out with a smile on their face?