For most people, the apocalypse and eternal damnation are topics of sober reflection and deep despair. Seth Rogen is not most people. A graduate of the popular, profitable Judd Appatow comic fraternity, Rogen and co-writer/director Evan Goldberg create a perfect mix of hilarity and horror, goofiness and gore in the funny-as-hell This Is the End.
Based on the 2007 never-released short Seth and Jay vs. the Apocalypse, the movie is surprising, suspenseful, outrageous, absurd, and ultimately jubilant; it lets off an infectious sense of fun and the spiky comic energy of a foul-mouthed but generally good-natured hard R-rated comedy of near-cataclysmic levels of vulgarity and excess.
The pre-apocalyptic setup is appropriately simple, and all of the actors play exaggerated, depraved versions of themselves as self-absorbed stoner idiots. Seth (Rogen) is the likeable guy who hasn’t been changed much by his acquisition of fame and fortune. His once best friend and Canadian compatriot Jay (Baruchel) disagrees; Jay is a stock outsider, a somewhat awkward hipster who doesn’t fit in with his old buddy’s newer, richer friends, including a pretentious and arrogant James Franco.
The plot gets going when Seth convinces Jay to go to a star-studded housewarming soiree at Franco’s ridiculous Hollywood Hills mansion filled with ghastly, garish modern artwork (including a giant sculpted penis that meets a horrendous demise at the mercy of an ax-wielding celeb). In attendance are a gaggle of the rich and famous good-naturedly making fun of their public personas: Emma Watson, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plassee, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari to name a few, and, best of all, Michael Cera as a kinky, coke-addled asshole—and incidentally, his asshole becomes a topic of conversation.
No sooner have we glimpsed all these cameos than disaster strikes and the divine wrath really hits the fan. Fiery sinkholes open up in the ground, cars explode, the hills are engulfed in flames, and the righteous are raptured up into the heavens through glowing blue beams while the rest are left to fend for themselves against scary, scaly, comically well-endowed demons. As the prophecies in the book of Revelations come to pass and as all hell breaks loose—literally—the crowd flees into the acrid night in scenes of jittery, queasy panic. The chaos is surprisingly straight-faced, shot with a steady camera in a dark nocturnal palette lit up by orange bursts of flaming doom.
The few lone survivors seeking safe haven in Franco’s bunker of a house are Seth, Jay, a fussy, overly friendly, passive-aggressive and creepy Jonah Hill, Hot Tub Time Machine’s Craig Robinson, a parody of the token black guy of horror movie lore, and the one guy nobody invited, Danny McBride, an over-the-top borderline sociopath with a number of unsanitary ways of making himself at home.
Pretty soon the atmosphere inside the mansion becomes almost as hostile as the world outside, as the over-privileged youngish actors are forced to coexist in close quarters, sharing limited space and dwindling supplies of food, water, and weed. Hunkering down in survivalist mode, the boys drink their own urine, play soccer with a man’s severed head, shoot a home-made sequel to Rogen and Franco’s Pineapple Express (with Hill playing Woody Harrelson), compare the Holy Trinity to Neapolitan ice cream, and have drawn-out debates about the ethics of ejaculating on one another’s stuff. The graphic gross-outs, gratuitous violence, homoerotic innuendos, sophomoric sex jokes and sight gags of the groin-related variety, and “rapey vibe” talk intermingle with forays into outlandish supernatural territory, with a few obvious, well-placed references to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
This Is the End is alternately sly and indulgent, acting as both homage and sendup to a very familiar type of raunch comedy. The slightly smug, self-serving, and self-satisfied premise—famous rich idiots acting like famous rich idiots and the assumption that is enough get our moviegoing dollars—works to the extent that it does exactly because the movie doesn’t take anything seriously, including itself and its actors. There are jabs at various career misfires (notably Franco’s Your Highness and Rogen’s The Green Hornet), and a few shots at Jonah Hill’s post-Oscar nomination self-importance.
As crude and crass as the humor often is, there is something almost innocent and sweet at the film’s center, a surprisingly sensitive investigation of shifting bonds, rivalries, and resentments. The raunchiness is at the same time diluted and made greater by the writers' emotional investment in the material and the undercurrent of hope and redemption they sneak in, much as they did in Superbad. The literal deux ex machina of a biblical apocalypse is just a backdrop against which more intimate calamities can get worked out. Beneath the boyish and boisterous bravado, these bros are capable of showing tenderness and vulnerability, and a faltering friendship can prove more tragic than global annihilation.
The actors, clearly attuned to each other’s comic rhythms, strike authentic notes of male frustration and anxiety, immaturity, sexual panic and the self-mocking tendencies of ostensibly grown men who should be old enough to know better. After the second unwelcome sequel of The Hangover’s cycle of contemporary man-child comedies made me fear for the subgenre’s survival, the self-aware, self-effacing This Is the End comes as a revival of sorts—or maybe it’s just the last great spasm, nothing more than a memorable deathbed convulsion before the subgenre reaches its inevitable conclusion and passes into nothingness.
Because as fun as it is to get high and play video games, I think the boys know it’s time to grow up and move on, even if it takes blowing up the whole world one last time. This Is the End proves that with these guys, even the end of days is one big bromance, so, “Take yo panties off,” as Robinson croons early in the film. Take yo panties off and prepare to meet yo maker.