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Non-Review Review: This is the End

There’s a moment about half-way through This is the End when our bunch of celebrities are starting go stir-crazy, as they brave the apocalypse inside James Franco’s surprisingly fortified house. In the strange combination of idle boredom and growing madness, the group decide to improvise a trailer for the non-existent sequel to Pineapple Express. It is complete nonsense, but there’s a strange energy and a warm sense of humour to their “sweded” version of a Hollywood comedy, complete with remote-control car chases and homemade props.

It feels like something that only these actors would get – it’s just a bunch of people hanging out, fooling around, making the most of the materials available to them do something which feels incredibly niche. It’s a weird balance of something so experimental and so niche that it’s almost definitely a piece of post-modern art. (The movie even features an early scene of pretentious James Franco gleefully arguing that everything is art – even Jay Baruchel.) On the other hand, it’s accessible and fun, managing to seem – simultaneously – like an incredibly niche and charmingly broad piece of film.

It’s also pretty damn funny.

... and I feel fine...

… and I feel fine…

Movies about Hollywood tend to be a little self-indulgent. It comes with the territory. It takes a lot of skill to avoid seeming self-important or pretentious, and there are very few films that manage the task. The is the End sees actors like Seth Rogan, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill playing themselves attending a nice party at James Franco’s house. It seems like it might be a recipe for self-congratulatory disaster, recalling the “comedians play comedians” self-importance of Funny People.

And there are rare touches of that throughout the film, as it seems that the bond these characters all share is one anchored in pop culture. Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogan pause at one point to discuss their fond memories of seeing Gladiator together, completely with a cheap and gratuitous bodily function gag at the end. However, the film does a good job deflating that sense of over-inflated ego by playing directly into it – acknowledging that these fictional versions of our lead actors are all self-obsessed ego-maniacs. (Baruchel even calls out Rogen early in the film when he name-drops Channing Tatum.)

Playing the hand they're dealt...

Playing the hand they’re dealt…

As things start to get bad, Jonah Hill tries to calm things down. “When disaster strikes, who do they rescue first? The actors!” James Franco wonders whether a life-time of making other people happy should earn him a pass into heaven, prompting Baruchel to observe that actors tend to be well compensated for the efforts. The rest of the gag retort that acting is a highly skilled profession which requires a great deal of craft. “Pretending to be hot when it’s cold,” Robinson suggests.

Part of the reason This is the End works so well is because it is remarkably accessible for a move about a bunch of Hollywood comedy stars. Those with no knowledge of popular culture won’t get everything out of it, and there is far too much awkward “referring to the cameoing celebrity by their first name to help the audience recognise them” in the early scenes, but the movie’s humour is generally broad enough to transcend that.

Keep calm and carry on...

Keep calm and carry on…

Part of this is the decision to cast each of the celebrities as broad archetypes, and a tendency to only lean heavily on their most high-profile roles. The movie alludes to James Franco and Seth Rogen getting their big breaks on Freaks and Geeks, a recurring theme in Franco’s artwork and possibly the root of his weird dynamic with Rogen, but the show is never mentioned – the vast majority of the audience who are unaware of the show’s existence and its place in the pair’s cinematography will still get the gags.

It helps that most of the cast play their roles somewhat broad. Although the actors are playing fictionalised versions of themselves, they fall into familiar comedic roles. Franco is the obsessive control freak; McBride is the aggressive sociopath; Jonah Hill at one point describes himself as “America’s sweetheart.” This works very well because the archetypes are broad enough to allow the actors to have a bit of fun and add a hint of nuance – Franco’s weird fixation with Rogen and intense dislike of McBride comes to mind.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

There is something appealingly niche about all this. This is the End often feels like it could be one of Franco’s post-modern art experiments, like that time he joined General Hospital as the mysterious artist “Franco.” It seems like the sort of crazy high-concept imagined in a late night conversation on a friend’s couch, as if somebody channel-hopped from The Player to Cloverfield and thought “hey, this might work!”

The concept of a bunch of celebrities enduring the apocalypse – and, rather more interestingly, the rapture – after a house-party is a concept it’s hard to imagine anybody pitching, and even harder to imagine any major studio backing. There’s a charming energy to the film, as if the cast are producing this for themselves and the world is welcome to come watch it if they want. If they don’t, well that’s cool too.

Here comes the McBride...

Here comes the McBride…

The film does have the weaknesses inherent in that premise. This is a movie that seems to have been made primarily for the amusement of the cast, rather than to satisfy the expectations of a studio comedy. There is a sense that the finished product could probably be a little tighter. The movie runs a tad too long, and there’s a slight drag in the middle as the ensemble resorts to some time-consuming methods to get at the water in the basement.

There are also times when the film feels a little too juvenile for its own good. There’s one (or twenty) too many gags about various bodily functions. The demons prowling the destroyed Earth wander around rendered in a lovingly anatomically-correct manner – which is inevitably a set-up for a rather obvious and little too crass punchline towards the end of the film. To be fair, some of the gags land (and land well), but the film goes to the gutter far too often in search of a quick laugh.

In tune with the end times...

In tune with the end times…

Still, these aren’t serious problems, and they’re mitigated by the sheer quirkiness of the project. Some of the celebrity cameos work quite well, and the fact that everybody seems to be have a great deal of fun is evident in every frame of the film. It’s more than enough to carry the movie from one laugh to the next. In particular, Michael Cera does a great job playing a rather crooked version of himself.

And, if you can get on the movie’s wave-length, the pay-off is spectacular. I’ll concede that the final joke won’t be for everybody, but – as a child of the late eighties and early nineties – it was the best laugh I’ve had in quite some time. The film won’t be to everybody’s taste. I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anybody without a tolerance for scatological humour or a casual interest in popular culture, but it pitches its jokes very well.

Relax, it's not the end of the... Oh, right...

Relax, it’s not the end of the…
Oh, right…

In a way, This is the End feels almost like improv done on an impressive budget. The special effects won’t cause JJ Abrams to lose any sleep, but it’s delightfully strange to see them wedded to so esoteric a comedy. This is the End is a refreshing addition to the summer’s schedule, and well worth a look for anybody looking for something a bit quirky and fun.

5 Responses

  1. See I was expecting this to be destroyed by critics and it surprisingly isn’t, good for me because I am looking forward to it 😀

  2. Fun movie with great cast. But ultimately it’s forgettable.

    • I don’t think it’s entirely forgettable. (Maybe it’s not memorable for the best reasons.) Certainly, the weird anatomical detail has stuck with me.

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