Two comedies in a row? Almost unheard off round these parts, but that’s just how it happened. But This Is The End is a very different animal to Despicable Me 2 and my reaction to it could be described as equally different.
An apocalypse comedy where just about every cast member is playing themselves (to varying warped degrees), This Is The End see’s Seth Rogan and best friend Jay Baruchel attending James Franco’s housewarming party when the Biblical end times begin. Along with Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, and with a cavalcade of guest cameos, the group have to survive the demonic dangers outside their refuge, and the fractious relationships inside.
After watching this movie, I found myself struggling to characterise it. It’s a very specific type of comedy, the kind that features a lot of jokes related to sexual organs, drugs, cursewords and relationships between men. The kind of thing that Seth Rogen does non-stop it would seem, with things like Pineapple Express and Knocked Up.
In the end, I could only come up with “Stoner Comedy”, the kind of catch all term that can cover films of this nature, like Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Your Highness, anything starring Kevin’s Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob”, Superbad, Knocked Up and even TV shows like Eastbound and Down. The kind of low-brow, but not insultingly so, comedy that appeals to a certain generation of 18-30 year old men, with humour based around sex, drugs and combinations of the two.
And that’s the big positive and the big negative of This Is The End. If you like that genre, and plenty of people do, then you will love This Is The End. If you don’t like them, you’ll hate it. And if you’re like me, not that endeared to them, but not that dismissive, you’ll find some laughs but overall a slightly underwhelming experience when viewed as a whole production.
Because This Is The End is one big in-joke for the genre as a whole, with its bigger and more well-known stars making a stoner comedy where they discuss their stoner comedies while being in a stoner comedy. It’s half-tribute, half parody and it half-works and half-doesn’t. It’s a sort of aimless, random production, the kind of thing where the idea of a buddy film was probably first posited, and the premise then fitted around that. That sensation where you half expect the cast to start winking at you as they reference their past careers never really goes away after it first arrives.
There are many tears evident throughout This Is The End, that prevent it from reaching the heights of true comedy greatness, in my eyes. The big problem is that the movie just doesn’t seem to know (or care) what it wants to be. It’s very hard to mix genres effectively, and still make a funny movie (I mean, have you see any of the Scary Movie movies or their knock-offs?) and This Is The End is trying to mix in a whole lot of stuff within the overarching realm of the stoner comedy.
There’s this whole “masculine relationships” angle throughout. There is genuine horror stuff, of many different varieties, from simple scares to more unsettling things. It’s a psychological movie, seeing a group of guys going stir-crazy in a small environment. And then it’s also an apocalypse/collapse of civilisation movie.
I guess it might just be my personal tastes, but I can’t fully enjoy a movie that is trying to just be so many things as well as the usual brand of comedy that the audience expects. Parts of it are very shallow, others are forced. I’m guessing this might have the whole point of the movie – it doesn’t seem like a great amount of care was put into the plot or its coherence after all – in which case you really an just chalk this down to my own preferences. I think a movie like this could be funny without being a pick-and-mix of different genres and styles.
I mean, I am aware that this is a total vanity project from its directors and stars, albeit a well-intentioned one. Rogen and co seem genuinely to be having a hell of a lot of fun making this movie, and the more hardcore fans of them that I know all seemed to love this film to death. This is sort of a weird thank you note to that fanbase, the ones that have kept Rogen’s career ticking over, with a movie that is just full of references to their other works. Rogen really isn’t making this film for me, or for those who may not have seen any of his earlier movies. It’s a very exclusive movie is what I am trying to say I suppose, and I’m pretty sure I’m only half-invited to the experience.
It’s a three stage thing, with each act trying to be something a bit different to the others. The first act, up to the characters taking refuge in Franco’s house, is a relationship drama between Rogen and Baruchel, one that wasn’t especially interesting or funny to explore. The second, bloated and out of control act is all the stuff in the house, which takes up much of the running and time and is the most susceptible to rapid changes in tone and theme, but also has by far the most laughs. The last act, as the group finally flee the house, is this weird and rather badly put together finale about redemption and self-sacrifice that feels very forced and just an excuse to get to the crazy final few minutes.
It’s weird, but this is almost the kind of movie where if you stripped out all of the jokes and crazy random stuff, you’d actually have a very disturbing horror/thriller that might actually be more worthy of praise and remembrance than This Is The End’s actual final product. The ending and the stupidity of it all ruins that line of thinking, but it couldn’t escape my notice that Rogen is actually capable of directing character drama and conflict that could work as a more serious exercise if he ever wanted to try.
The rather long running time for a comedy – close to two hours – just means that things drag and drag, especially towards that conclusion, which is probably one of the reasons I disliked it so much. This movie doesn’t have to be this long, and could easily have been trimmed down to a more palatable (and traditional) 90 minutes. The conclusion is very lame: Rogen clearly didn’t know how to end his movie, so we get this ridiculous (and repeated) self-sacrifice get-out-of-jail-free card that various characters play in the last 15 or so minutes, just so we can get to a random ending in heaven with the Backstreet Boys. That kind of thing really bothers in me movies, when the production team has their premise, but can’t fathom an effective plot structure or work towards a satisfying finale. That’s a key weakness in This Is The End for me, as Rogen sacrifices any kind of coherence (which can still be comedic) for more whacky fun with Baruchel.
In terms of the story, there are only a few other things I can say. Most of the celebrity cameos near the start are one-note, and a mixture of hit and miss. The stuff with Emma Watson was as misogynistic as it comes, and while the “whacky misunderstanding” stuff was somewhat funny, you can’t escape from the uncomfortable fact that the only substantial female presence in this movie was for a few rape joke. That’s a fratboy level of comedy that I don’t especially condone upon reflection. Rogen does actually manage to make some effective and rather startling horror swerves, like when the rapture first occurs, or when the demon dog attacks Robinson and Baruchel in the other house. But while effective, they were still a bit off-putting: you don’t really buy the terror after a few seconds because you realise that you’re still watching a stoner comedy, and then it just becomes distracting as you wonder how long it’s going to take for the movie to revert to type.
It’s hard to evaluate the acting in this movie, since only a tiny amount of unimportant cast members are playing people other than themselves. For a time it seems like everyone really is just portraying their “characters” as they would react in an actual apocalypse, and in the case of Rogen and Baruchel they mostly stay that way. But the warped nature of some of the others, which is, in varying degrees, self parody and then a satire of the Hollywood acting community, comes to the fore around the start of the second act and never goes away.
Rogen is doing just fine as himself, and I suppose this is just about how I would imagine him in real life. His embarrassment at being filmed by some random person at the airport, his break with Baruchel, his final turnabout, it’s all portrayed to an adequate, if unspectacular degree. I’ve never credited Rogen with actually being that good an actor anyway, but he does fine here.
Baruchel is a lot better though, being the only one who actually goes on any kind of journey as a character. He starts out a lonely, introverted, easily annoyed figure, who wants nothing more than to be left alone with Rogen for the weekend, but gradually has to come out of the shell during the course of the disaster engulfing LA. He has conflict with Rogen and Hill, and gets the best of any kind of redemption angle as he ponders the Biblical nature of the horror outside. While its nothing on a par with some of his other stuff – I remember really liking his work in Tropic Thunder – he’s still one the best here.
James Franco appears to be playing himself, although it’s all a little “nod/wink”, especially as he keeps going on about his desire to sacrifice his life for Rogen or his various eccentricities, the kind of thing that you may occasionally read about the real Franco. He gets some funny lines and plays off McBride really well, but in the end Franco is putting as much effort into this as he did in his last movie. He’s playing a laid back stoner, and that’s exactly what you get.
Jonah Hill is playing a really bizarre, but occasionally funny role, as this all around nice guy who is secretly evil and hateful, a character turn you can see coming from a million miles away but still leads to one of the better Exorcist parodies you’re likely to see. Craig Robinson is the one whose role is mostly a satire of Hollywood, as he spends most of time denigrating actors, the business and generally acting as anything other than the slightly tough guy we’ve seen in things like The Office. Emma Watson has some brief moments, with her (and Robinson’s) reaction to Baruchel’s dislike of Forrest Gump probably being one of the most understatedly funny moments.
But man oh man, Danny McBride really steals the show here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without his involvement I might have actually disliked this movie intensely. Making McBride the bad guy – playing a more evil version of his character from Eastbound and Down essentially – was a stroke of genius. McBride is deliciously over the top and comically Machiavellian, going from a nice guy making everyone breakfast to leader of a cannibal gang in the course of an hour or so. He gets the best jokes, and his shouting match with Franco might just be the best part of the whole experience (and, I dare to venture, seemed mostly ad libbed). He just excels in playing this kind of character, the unpredictable and unrepentant asshole and I really liked him in this movie.
Everyone else of note is just a cameo. Michael Cera goes full switcharound in his scenes as a coked-up deviant. Rihanna is…there (as a follow-up to Battleship, this is a bit of a step down). David Krumholtz and Paul Rudd are the best of the others with once-off moments that generate some giggles, with Krumholtz’ inevitable death thanks to the stupidity of Baruchel, and Rudd turning up to the apocalypse late. Channing Tatum has a stunning and very memorable appearance near the end. Nice to see the Backstreet Boys can still get some work.
Visually, it’s a competent, if uninspiring production. There are some really well presented and unnerving scenes – like the Rapture beginning in a local convenience store, probably the best directed moment – and I think Rogen has an eye for camera work, he just doesn’t push himself too hard. The majority of the film is shot on one set after all.
The primary set is Franco’s new home which, while the cast tries to make it out as eccentric and kooky as its owner, really isn’t that noteworthy. All it does is provide the right mix of open space and smaller, more intimate rooms for the action to unfold. Watching the place fall to pieces throughout the course of the movie was good, but it really wasn’t that pretty of a home.
The CGI work for the apocalyptic landscape of a hellish LA is impressive enough, although I suppose it isn’t took difficult to do when you limit such shots to their bare minimum and wreath everything else in smoke. The various demons, culminating in a gigantic one at the conclusion, are well-presented and designed, and probably make up a large part of the 32 million dollar budget.
Also, penises. Penises everywhere. A staple of this kind of film of course, but the sheer amount of genitals and genitalia jokes is distracting at times. Worst of all is the giant demonic penis that is seen waggling at the conclusion of the movie, a fairly lame finale when it comes to that kind of humour (my partner was especially unimpressed by all of that stuff because it was, as she said “cheap humour, like using the word bones as a pun in Bones when referring to the main character who is also called Bones”).
While there is lots of horror, the bloodshed stuff is limited to a handful of scenes, such as a rather gruesome decapitation sequence. Everything else, like Jonah Hill’s possession is just played up for the comical effect, and even the aforementioned decapitation was an echo of a similar scene in Tropic Thunder.
The script is OK. The humour here is, for me, very much a hit and miss affair. It depends very much on timing, or the tone and mood of the scene in which the jokes are contained, and considering the way that This Is The End switches tack constantly, it often finds itself falling flat. The standard “man talk” moments are all generally good, and the film can claim to have the best dick joke I’ve ever seen on film (from McBride of course). Even part of the rape joke angle for Emma Watson works, and occasionally the whacky randomness of things can be endearing. “The Exorcism of Jonah Hill” was a great sequence (“It really isn’t that compelling”) for example.
But then there are the winks and the nods which don’t work for me at al. Like making a low-budget Pineapple Express sequel, or the drug trip, or the ending. There are plenty of failing moments here, all for the cause of a vanity project style stuff or in-jokes for an audience that went out to see Your Highness last year.
I suppose it would be easier to say that there are one-time jokes that are frequently laugh-out-loud, but that isn’t enough to make a really good comedy movie. Craig Robinson’s monologue about how he put someone’s eyes out over a foosball match is hilarious, but then comes the serious tonal shift again.
Music wise, a decent selection of hits forms the soundtrack, with a score that is so understated and forgettable that I had to go and check to see if This Is The End actually had a score (it does).
Ok then, themes. Naturally, a film like this, being about as deep as the kiddie end of a pool, has only a handful of things worth talking about in that score.
I suppose the big thing is male relationships, or at least male relationships as Rogen and his friends see them. This, as mentioned, is a very male-centric movie, to the extent that any female involvement is based almost singularly around sex and rape jokes. I suppose the friendship between characters like Rogen and Baruchel is compelling and believable enough, and their interaction was probably the one that most worked, for me, as a modern male relationship.
Everything else is all so much Lord of the Flies, as a group of men, contained in a single space during a very dangerous situation, struggle to get past their own foibles, eccentricities, and eventually their own crazy behaviour. I can’t say This Is The End does a lot when it comes to painting men as reasonable individuals, but that’s not the point of the movie.
The only other theme really worth noting is one of redemption. As soon as Baruchel notes that the disaster outside has numerous biblical connotations, he’s on a quest to try and be a better person, and parts of the film that follow are based around discussions of right and wrong, and the ability of a sinful person to make up for their past wrongs.
Unfortunately, This Is The End barely scratches the surface of making this a key talking point, And by the end the idea of redemption has been reduced to a really cheap way of getting into heaven at the expense of their people – you can get “saved” by sacrificing yourself for someone else, but this gets taken away from you if you so much as curse afterwards. As with the rest of the movie, this is idea is used only for as long as Rogen could get some humour out of it, before it is abandoned in favour of the next set-piece.
In conclusion, I know that This Is The End is a film that is not marketed exclusively at people like me. There are large parts of it that I enjoyed – some of the jokes, some of the performances, some of the risks that they took. But in the end the movie is too much of an in-joke, a reference machine, too wildly variant in its tone and direction, and much too long, for me to really feel like it was the best that it could have been.
Those who like the stoner comedy genre will adore this movie, since it is tailor made just for them. In fact, this might very well be the nadir of that while genre, because what are they supposed to do now? For others, This Is The End will certainly not be their cup of tea and some might hate it outright. It is hard to give this movie a recommendation judgement on those grounds, so I can only say: Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).