There was a comic book series about ten years ago called “Y: The Last Man,” about a plague that wiped out the entire male population (well, except for the titular protagonist). I never got around to reading too deeply into it, but I do remember a scene from an early issue where a group of women start thinking about all the male celebrities like Bob Dylan and Woody Allen who also must have been killed in this mass extinction. That’s something you don’t really think about right away when you watch a disaster film, but it must be true that whenever Roland Emmerich casually decides to have Los Angeles ripped apart by tornados, earthquakes, or Alien invaders he’s almost certainly sentencing all the talented filmmakers and actors we’ve come to know and love over the years to death. I’m sure one could jokingly rejoice at the notion of Paris Hilton or Brett Ratner getting offed by one of these disasters, but the thought is a lot less funny when you think of someone like George Clooney or Steven Spielberg being among the nameless victims of these catastrophes. Then again, there is some comic potential in the idea of Hollywood actors actively trying to survive a Hollywood style cotastrophy, and that idea is at the center of the new Seth Rogen vehicle This is the End.
The film begins with Seth Rogen (who, like almost everyone with a speaking role in the film, is playing himself) waiting at the airport to pick up his friend and fellow actor Jay Baruchel. Baruchal is one of the less famous names in the film, he’s probably best known for playing the retarded guy in that sub-plot from Million Dollar Baby that no one talks about, but he and Rogen were friends back in Canada and both were in that early Judd Apatow clique. That evening Baruchal reluctantly agrees to go with Rogen to a party at James Franco’s house where a ton of other celebrities are present and celebrating. Little do they know that this party is being held the night of a major catastrophe that will kill most of the party-goers and leave a core group of Rogen, Baruchal, Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride holed up in Franco’s house hoping to keep whatever or whoever is causing all the chaos out. Hilarity ensues.
The idea of having celebrities play themselves for comedic effect is not a new one. Actors have been creating exaggerated comedic versions of themselves for years on shows like “Extras” and “Entourage,” where they depict themselves as narcissistic assholes, often for the purposes of reassuring their viewer that they aren’t really one of “those” kind of celebrities. It’s almost come to the point where it’s more unusual for celebrities to portray themselves in a light that’s overtly flattering. Most of the actors here aren’t really being caricatures like that, for the most part they’re just doing riffs on their usual comedic personas: Rogen is a shlubby stoner who matures over the course of the film, McBride is a dickish man-child with an inflated ego, and Robinson is an affable fellow who occasionally takes to the piano to sing a pseudo-Motown song. Only James Franco really seems to be playing with his personal image, in that he plays a fun-loving young man with certain artistic pretentions.
For the most part it’s smart that these actors stick to their usual shtick because the basic meta-premise of actors playing themselves is not a sustainable premise and the movie knows it. After about a half hour the film more or less lets you forget that you’re watching a bunch of famous people playing themselves and begins to feel like it’s just a solid comedy about a bunch of random slackers and stoners trying to survive the apocalypse. In other words, the film has plenty of good dick jokes that don’t need this particular high concept in order to work. Most of the film is set in James Franco’s house, so it kind of takes on the energy of a good “bottle episode” from a sitcom, and you can tell that these guys had a lot of time to really work off each other and come up with some good improvisations.
Later in the film, things start to deal more directly with the apocalyptic mayhem, and the film turns into a sort of Ghostbusters style fusion of comedy and visual effects. Most people will correctly tell you that CGI effects are anathema to good comedy, but they work here, in part because they’re only something like 20% of the movie and don’t really outstay their welcome. The effects themselves are a little inconsistent. Some of the early shots of fireballs and holes opening in the earth look almost deliberately poor, as if the film was trying to say “you get the point, and since this isn’t a real action movie, let’s move on.” But later the film brings in some CGI effects that actually do look like they belong in a big budget Hollywood movie, and that makes me a little less forgiving of that early section. Otherwise I thought the craftsmanship here was pretty good. Directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg give the film a sort of earthy digital look in order to differentiate it from the usual comedy and show that this is the “real world,” but they wisely avoid trying to turn it into some kind of found footage shaky cam thing.
As is often the case in the kind of films that Rogen and company are in, there is a legitimate plot to be found here and actual character arcs throughout the movie. The central “bromance” here is between Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, who have grown apart as friends as Rogen has gotten more famous and has established himself in Los Angeles. Over the course of the film their friendship is front and center. There’s also some legitimate end of the world “how far will we go to survive” type stuff, which does remain compelling even as it’s constantly being undercut by laughs. This is probably why I’m so much more compelled by this particular crew of talent, they know that they can’t just try to be funny at every turn, they actually do try to make solidly constructed films. I’m not going to say this is a perfect comedy. The first fifteen minutes aren’t the best, a handful of the jokes kind of fall flat, a few of the references didn’t age particularly well in the time it took for the film to come out, and in general it could have used some trimming. But at the end of the day I didn’t really care, because it still worked better than 90% of the other comedies out there. I rarely seek out comedies or leave them satisfied, and when one does work for me I tend to rejoice rather than worry about whatever little flaws can be found, and this one definitely worked for me.
***1/2 out of Four