If you think that being trapped with a bunch of guys telling dick jokes would the equivalent of Hell on Earth – well, according to THIS IS THE END, you are more right than you think – perhaps literally so. The vulgar humor of young guys who have yet to outgrow adolescence is shoved in your face whether you like it or not, but in an excellent example of eating your cake and having it, too, the film happily portrays its characters as hapless vulgarians who deserve the apocalyptic fate that befalls them. In other words, you do not have to like the characters or their sense of humor in order to enjoy THIS IS THE END. We are not laughing with them; we are laughing at them.
James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Johna Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson – along with myriad other familiar faces – play themselves, and not in a very flattering light. Baruchel (who apparently feels about Los Angeles much the same as Woody Allen does) makes a trip out to visit his friend, Rogen, who insists on attending a Hollywood party at Franco’s house. An earthquake or some kind of natural disaster hits, or perhaps it is something more, judging from the strange blue lights elevating bodies into the sky. Is is a massive alien abduction, or could it be The Rapture?
Taking refuge in Franco’s house, along with Hill, McBride, and Robinson, barricade the doors, divide up the resources, and attempt to wait out the disaster, but help may not be coming. Although initially skeptical of Baruchel’s suspicions that this is not a mere natural disaster but a literal, Biblical apocalypse, the survivors are eventually forced to that something downright demonic is going on.
THIS IS THE END belongs to that small sub-genre of films in which Hollywood celebrities attempt to earn brownie points by pretending to be as venal, crass, and self-absorbed as we suspect them to be -presumably, in the hope of convincing us that, if they really were privileged boors in real life, they would not have the sense of humor to attempt the self-effacing portrayals on screen.
Whether this is a con game or a brilliant comic ruse, the results are outrageously effective. Unburdened of the urge to create rounded, sympathetic personalities, THIS IS THE END instead serves up vicious caricatures, uncluttered with complications or subtlety, that shine off the screen with something resembling a hint of truth about the human condition – or at least a darkly satirical version of it. Nobility and moral quandaries are few and far between: when the sh-t hits the fan, you can bet it will be every man for himself; it’s just a matter of who will be the biggest douche-bag about it.
No one really comes across well. Even Baruchel’s level-headed straight man (he is supposed to be the viewer’s window into this world) is a bit too full of himself, not overtly self-righteous but as will as anybody to sell his comrades out when an opportunity presents itself. Only Emma Watson, who shows up briefly, earns much empathy, putting the smack down on these losers and ripping off their supplies after overhearing (and, to be fair, misunderstanding) a conversation about rape among the guys.
This is one of the film’s funnier sequences and not just because Rogen gets smacked in the face with an ax handle. Baruchel dares to raise the obvious issue of the situation (a single woman among half a dozen men); in an overstated case of denial, the others turn his concern against him, as if he were the one with rape on his mind. (The parallels with our current political discourse, in which people who raise concerns about racism and sexism are shouted down as if they are the real bigots, is obvious.)
Funnier still is the apocalyptic chaos that takes over in the third act. Like a good, low-budget horror film, THIS IS THE END is mostly restricted to the confines of the Franco house, offering us only judicious glimpses of the fiery Armageddon outside. Unlike many of Hollywood’s overstuffed blockbusters, this limited use of special effects renders the shots we do see even more special; by the ending, we get a few truly outstanding set pieces, the last involving what must be at least the second largest penis ever portrayed on screen (unlike most special effects monstrosities, this one is anatomically correct – though not for long!).
The sly joke at the end is that our characters finally learn how to redeem themselves. The problem is, once they know this can be done, they are still on the con, acting in a righteous way in hope of earning a get out of Hell card from the Almighty – a point made with ruthless precision when Franco makes the mistake of flipping someone off while on the point of being elevated to the heavens. His unfortunate demise (being eaten by a former-friend-turned-cannibal) is all the funnier when you recall that, earlier in the film, while brainstorming a bad idea for a sequel to THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Franco had suggested an ending in which he sacrificed himself to save his friends, only to have the villain eat him. Prophetic words, indeed!
In spite of the self-reflexive tone, THIS IS THE END will not suit everyone’s taste. The film may hold the crude antics up for ridicule; nevertheless, it indulges in those antics far too much for us to believe that writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are doing anything more than offering a slight buffer in the hope of making the antics more acceptable.
Fortunately, the buffer does work. Freed from the boundaries of good taste, Rogen and Goldberg present some of the most outrageously over-the-top comedy ever seen on the silver screen. It’s one thing to have a bunch of guys telling dick jokes all day. It’s quite another to see a towering demon emasculated by a heavenly blue shaft of light.
Now there’s something you don’t see every day!
Channing Tatum is Danny McBride’s bitch.
THIS IS THE END (Columbia Pictures, June 12, 2013) 107 minutes. Rated R. Written and directed by Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen. Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Johna Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Aziz Ansari.