Film Film Reviews

Review: This is the End – Best When It Minimizes the Meta and Emphasizes the Crazy

This is the End, the directorial debut from co-writers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, is a comedy so dependent upon surprise that it is better if you walk into it knowing next to nothing about it.  If you can see it without having seen a trailer or read a review that is for the best.  Of course, that puts us in an awkward position because this is supposed to be a review of the film, and here I am telling you to not read any reviews.  So, allow me to give you a paragraph laying out everything you need to know about the movie before seeing it, and then you can come back later and read the rest of this review after you have seen This is the End.  So, here goes.

Here is everything you need to know before seeing This is the End:

It’s kind of funny – with how funny you find it depending mostly on your level of familiarity with the actors.  It does star a bunch of well-known actors (e.g., Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill) who are clearly having a lot of fun with their roles. Lots of very unexpected things happen, most of them meant to be funny and play even funnier when watched while high (one assumes). The humor is quite frequently vulgar in nature, and the language is certainly coarse enough to have more than earned the film its R rating.

Now Begins the Rest of the Review In Which I Do Discuss The Plot, Though No Major Spoilers:

This is the End began its life as a short film entitled “Jay and Seth Vs. The Apocalypse” (see the trailer here), in which Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel play fictionalized versions of themselves who are stuck in a room together during the apocalypse and quickly begin to bicker and have their friendship tested. This is the End continues that same idea, with the same focus upon Rogen and Baruchel as the central characters, but adds four other celebrities (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride) to the main cast. All of the actors play versions of themselves meant to riff on their well-known personas.  At times, it feels a bit like a disaster movie version of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm – the partially improvised HBO sitcom which routinely featured well-known actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves.

This is the End Rogen Baruchel
Your heroes of This is the End, ladies and gentlemen.

The film starts out strong (even with its regrettable Carl’s Jr. product placement moment), establishing Rogen and Baruchel as two friends somewhat drifting apart due to Rogen’s adoption of a Los Angeles lifestyle and Baruchel’s preference to stick to their Canadian roots.  The premise of the two actors playing themselves requires perhaps surprisingly little adjustment on the part of the audience, an audience trained to forever easily adjust to such things after having seen Neil Patrick Harris play himself in the Harold & Kumar films and/or James Van Der Beek do the same in Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.

Neil-Patrick-Harris-as-Himself-in-Harold-Kumar-Escape-From-Guantanamo-Bay-neil-patrick-harris-12882538-1024-576
Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to the White Castle, delivering the type of self-mocking performance that has helped prepare audiences for This Is the End.

However, unlike the Harris and Van Der Beek examples Rogen and Baruchel don’t really seem to be playing heightened versions of themselves, with Rogen in particular simply coming off almost exactly as he does in interviews (“annoying laugh” and all). The film actually establishes the two as the straight men who will soon be thrown into a bizarre situation with a bunch of eccentric characters. This begins when they go to a housewarming party for James Franco, playing upon the “that James Franco is weird, huh?” public perception of him to humorous effect.  Once there, the celebrity cameos, every single one of them playing themselves, fly by so fast that it is hard to keep track. It is around half cast members from prior Rogen/Baruchel-related projects (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Superbad), and a random mix of well-known comedians and comedic actors…and Rihanna for some reason, who actually has a couple of funny moments.

As fun as this party scene is, more so for those who recognize most of the actors who show up, it does get close to a breaking point where you start thinking, “Okay, I get it – you guys are very aware of how we perceive you. You scored your ‘I did a meta-commentary on my own celebrity’ badge, but please tell me there’s more to this.”  However, before that quite happens the cast is hilariously and brutally (hilarious because it is so brutal) widdled down by a purposefully ill-defined disaster.  We are left with just Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, Robinson, and McBride (who is not initially present but joins the next morning), all protected within Franco’s durable house whose durability is owed to its rather angular design.  This quickly equates to lots of frantic screaming and dovetails into broad physical humor commenting upon just how ill-prepared for anything real the actors are (e.g., Franco appears to barely even know what a tool set is let alone have one).

this is the end cast jonah-hill-craig-robinson-seth-rogen-jay-baruchel-danny-mcbride-this-is-the-end-467
They freak out. You’d expect them to be brave? They pretend for a living, even belong to a guild of pretenders (SAG).

As the actors attempt to wait the disaster out, anticipating they will be rescued first because they are so important, it gradually becomes apparent that this is no boating accident – this is the literal apocalypse.  So, we have to watch 6 very self-involved individuals who would be among the least prepared possible for such a situation attempt to survive  and avoid killing each other.

This means the majority of the film from that point forward plays out like what in sitcoms is called a “bottle episode” – one that never leaves its primary set, in this case Franco’s spacious, vaulted-ceiling house.  Perhaps as a result of this, the story progresses like a series of interrelated sketches, each with varying degree of success.  The most consistently effective element is probably the house members using Franco’s video camera to record confessionals, ala MTV’s The Real World.  However, this sketch format and the film’s related story wears thin, and the “Holy shit!  Did I just see that!” moments are not quite as plentiful as you might expect.

This-is-the-End-Craig-Robinson-e1365613702361
Robinson delivering one of the Real World-style video-taped confessionals.

The enjoyment is largely dependent upon a fondness for the actors involved.  Rogen and Baruchel make for a surprisingly effective emotional center, and with Rogen it’s surprising how similar he seems here to pretty much how he always comes off in films.  Franco, whose entire life sometimes seems like it’s a performance art piece, is a reliable presence here.  Robinson might be less familiar to wide audiences, but playing himself as a loveable oaf who is somewhat sensitive about his weight reveals eventual rewards.  McBride usually plays jerks, and here that is no different.  If they had called him Kenny Powers instead of Danny McBride it wouldn’t have been far off.  Hill gets some great lines, but playing himself as a sweet guy who appears to love everyone comes off a bit odd.  With Hill, it feels like they just needed one member of the group to be a stand-in for an effete, pacifist LA guy as opposed to playing upon any real screen persona he has.

This-is-the-End-Jay-Baruchel-Jonah-Hill-Seth-Rogen
Jonah Hill, frenemy with Baruchel but buddies with Rogen, does not completely work in this film.

Rogen and co-screenwriter Evan Goldberg’s directing is solid, although perhaps surprisingly stronger during action sequences than during more static conversation scenes in the house.  Their script possibly never really eclipses its origins as a short film, with a great first act and premise that doesn’t quite succeed in justifying a feature-length running time.  They actually almost pull it off, but the relationships between the characters eventually prove tiresome.  Plus, they wait probably 15 minutes too long get to the big action set-pieces at the end.  The meta-commentary jokes suffer the same fate as all meta-commentary – it’s only enjoyable if you know what they’re talking about.  Perhaps sensing as much, the cracks about each actor’s respective careers (mostly relegated to Rogen, Hill, and Franco) are not leaned on as much as they very easily could have.  The film is more successful when it is more generally cracking jokes about pampered actors being cowards.

I can think of no film in which as many people play themselves as happens in This is the End, which features maybe only 4 or 5 speaking roles for people not playing themselves.  The result could have been a disaster of disaster-movie proportions, yet it ends up being funnier than it probably has any right to be.  On this point, your mileage may vary.  It’s difficult to imagine being amused by this film if you are not familiar with the actors and/or already like them.  For example, I kind of couldn’t stand Danny McBride (and not couldn’t stand in a funny way) here but really enjoyed Rogen and Baruchel, which corresponds to how much I like each of them as actors.

Others (BadAss Digest, The National Post, etc.) are calling this the funniest film of the year, which if true is probably more of a criticism of the state of comedy than a compliment to This Is the End.  This is also sets expectation levels too high.  However, This Is the End is fairly funny, and I envy those who might walk into the theater to see it and have absolutely no idea what to expect as that is the ideal viewing method (and if you read this far before seeing it then you have only yourself to blame).

That’s Good: Surprisingly solid action sequences; good special effects; Hilarious opening with multiple funny celebrity cameos, the Real World-esque confessional camera sequences

That’s Bad: Premise wears thin; Around 15 minutes too long; dynamic between main cast members grows old after a while; you need to really like these actors to like this movie; the main narrative beyond establishing the premise and reaching its big conclusion plays far too much like a mere series of sketches.

The In-Between: In addition to everyone I’ve mentioned, there are several other celebrity cameos which pop up, one of which has been spoiled in the film’s promotional material.  These cameos vary in their effectiveness.

See It – Stream It – Skip It: Like the actors?  See it.  Don’t?  Skip it.  On the fence?  Wait to stream it.

Trailer: 

This is the End Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence.  Check out Fandango to search for local showtimes.

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