A 20-foot demon with glowing eyes, abyss-like fissures in the streets and funnels of blue light sucking the virtuous up to Heaven are signs of the Apocalypse – all while a motley crew of comics including Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill (as ‘themselves’) cower in the tasteful environs of James Franco’s Hollywood mansion. This Is the End also seemed, on paper, like a sign of the Apocalypse – a new high in the rampant narcissism that blights Hollywood comedy and the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter culture in general. Yet the film is surprisingly subversive, often fascinating and – in its foul-mouthed way – very funny.
Rogen (who also co-wrote and co-directed) is an unusual comic. Comedy comes from reversal, arrogant characters taking a fall, braggarts using big talk as a façade (Bob Hope comes to mind); if a comic hero’s sympathetic he’s usually a loser by society’s standards, from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen – yet Rogen is a cocksure, successful character who never wavers, never gets his comeuppance and doesn’t seem to care what society thinks, nor does he ever get challenged. He played a stand-up comic (loosely based on himself) in Funny People, and his act was desperately unfunny – yet that seemed to be irrelevant, and the film never called him on it. His success, and that of his cohorts, is presumably a case of his obsessions (smoking weed, mostly) matching those of his audience. Personally, I find him insufferable.
Yet something happens in This Is the End. Playing ‘Seth Rogen’ seems to have freed Rogen to play an actual character, with flaws and some unsavoury details. First seen picking up Jay Baruchel (or ‘Jay Baruchel’) from the airport, Rogen is his usual cool dude – “Hey Seth Rogen! What up, man?” calls out a fan – yet later, faced with the end of the world, he proves to be a coward and even betrays Jay, his supposed best friend. His fellow comics are equally dysfunctional (the film smartly uses Baruchel as the ‘normal’ one, an outsider in the Hollywood hothouse). Jonah Hill (or ‘Jonah Hill’) is a condescending sycophant, a do-gooder who’s “adopted an incontinent spaniel”, and so full of himself he can’t even pray without mentioning his Oscar nomination (“Dear God, it’s me Jonah Hill … [pause] … from Moneyball”). Then there’s ‘James Franco’, a glad-handing hipster and pretentious pseud who loves to pontificate on Art. “Your mum’s p***y was the canvas,” he tells Jay grandly; your dad’s penis was the paintbrush – “Boom! You’re the art!”. “Thank you, James Franco.”
The jokes are often outrageous, with much talk of “titty-f***ing” and “explosive ejaculate”. That’s par for the course these days – but they don’t have the smugness that so often taints Hollywood comedy, if only because our heroes are doing drugs and discussing porno mags with the world ending around them. There are hidden tensions: Franco’s hiding food from the others; Rogen and Baruchel have been growing apart; everybody hates Danny McBride (or ‘Danny McBride’). Above all, the film works a constant undertow of fantasy (specifically films) vs. reality, incidentally making a comment on immature men who can’t tell one from the other.
At some point Hill becomes possessed (don’t ask) and Baruchel performs an exorcism by quoting from The Exorcist (“The power of Christ compels you…”). “It’s a movie!” protests someone; “It’s a manual!” counters Jay – and that’s the point, movie reality trumping actual reality (as it did e.g. in Inglourious Basterds) just as ‘Seth Rogen’ ultimately trumps Seth Rogen. This Is the End is a film made by actors about actors, the strange halfway-house of being an actor, the selfishness and stunted emotional development of being an actor – but also a kind of validation, the actors initially daunted by the thought of being heroes (“We’re actors! We’re soft as baby shit!”) only to discover that the End of the World is really just a glorified B-movie. I never thought I’d give four stars to a film that begins with Seth Rogen scoffing burgers and ends with a performance by the Backstreet Boys, but there it is. This whole summer’s been bizarre, in my opinion.