Enjoyment of This is the End, Seth Rogen’s inaugural ascension to the rank of filmmaking auteur – take all the umbrage you want with that claim, ye elitist of cinephiles, but he not only stars but co-writes and co-directs with longtime behind-the-scenes partner Evan Goldberg – depends almost entirely on your opinion of Rogen himself. Though cinema is a heavily collaborative process and there are a dozen unique reasons people could cite for watching any given film, this one is not just a vanity project like so many others built specifically to cater to a movie star’s fanbase – it’s the literal epitome of vanity projects, made by the star himself, playing himself, and, no offense to him, but probably nowhere near as funny to any of us ticket-buying viewers as it is to Rogen himself and the friends he made it with. He doesn’t even really need us to buy our tickets or write our reviews in this case. Our validation is moot. If we – that is, anyone else in the world beyond the people he likes to act with time and time again – if we like the movie, cool, bonus for him, but whatever, he’s already created one of the entertainment industry’s biggest, most widely seen, and most bluntly conceived excuses to horse around with his friends ever attempted. My friends and I used video-taped high school class projects (studying WWII, having to explain math theorems) as a launching pad for indulging our wackiest creative impulses and mugging relentlessly for each other and our classmates. Imagine if we’d gotten $30 million and a plum 3,000-screen summertime release date to do the same solipsistic routine: mock ourselves, diagram our chemistry as a group, and banter about our personal obsessions. If we were talented, funny, and employed in the movie business, This is the End would’ve been the biographical movie adaptation of our destiny (alas). Which is to say, that’s what this movie is, essentially. Friends trying to make each other laugh on a blockbuster scale.
That makes it sound as self-indulgently boring, pointless and narcissistic as an Adam Sandler joint, namely this summer’s Grown Ups 2, aka “Sandler’s 2nd summer vacation home movie”, so just as your love (or not) for ’90s-era SNL, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and Hotel Transylvania will pretty accurately help pre-determine your response to that movie, so too will your ranking of Freaks & Geeks, The Pineapple Express, and Knocked Up sum up your open-mindedness to the Apatow-clan circle-jerk of This is the End. Given their similarities (and even ignoring the Venn diagram intersection of Sandler and Rogen vis-a-vis Undeclared and Funny People), it’s unfair to suggest that one group’s work is automatically better or more deserving of attention than the other. But suggestion be damned, I’ll straight-out say it: Rogen’s clan is funnier, their movies are superior, and if we just randomly select a recent year’s work from both – say, 2007 – the evidence speaks for itself: Superbad was one of the best films of that year, period, and an instant classic, while 2007’s Chuck and Larry has joined the fairly exclusive collection of movies that I will never, ever watch ever because holy shit seriously.
Now I know there has been some Seth Rogen backlash in recent times. A friend of mine with whom I’ve seen most Rogen-related movies over the years actually turned down my invitation to This is the End, saying it’s been a while since the actor has done anything decent and he doesn’t seem funny anymore. I will acknowledge that Rogen’s last truly funny and memorable comic performance was four long years ago in Observe & Report, so his cachet as a comedian could use a refill. However, it’s not like he’s been appearing in garbage since then; his career has just taken some unexpected turns. After getting hung up for years trying to put together The Green Hornet (which actually turned out to be a modestly good time, provided you have little to no loyalty to the radio series), he tossed in some perfectly likable parts for middle-of-the-road fare like 50/50 and The Guilt Trip, did some amusing voice work as the alien in Paul, had a genuinely hilarious little cameo in his wife Lauren Miller’s lovable, underseen For a Good Time, Call…, and even took himself seriously for the first time in the heartbreaking, equally underseen jewel Take This Waltz before spending another several years assembling This is the End (it’s been in production since 2011). So to be fair, he hasn’t really even attempted another official comedy since before this decade began. He’s been trying to branch out, give the guy another chance!
At this point, though still closely involved with most of the staff at Judd Apatow headquarters, Seth Rogen has started to emerge as his a force of his own, technically if not so much creatively yet. He wasn’t anywhere near Apatow’s latest project, This is 40 (a first for the actor), and even more ironically, despite Rogen’s own This is [ ] movie being one long Hollywood inside joke about his own career, Apatow himself – the guy who first ushered Rogen and half the movie’s cast into the limelight of fame – isn’t present or even mentioned in the script. Nonetheless, the writer-director-producer’s brand name is stamped everywhere, not only in numerous references to Freaks & Geeks and Pineapple but also, as expected, in the onslaught of penis jokes (extended banter thereof, props, other visual gags), frank sex talk, episodic plotting, core themes about overcoming stunted maturity and not taking friendship for granted, and a screenplay that, if transcribed post-production, would be at least 75% improvisation. This isn’t a criticism, considering Rogen’s been a writer since back in the “Undeclared” days, but if this isn’t a one-time goof and he intends to continue taking more control of his work, as huggable and convivial as the big guy is no matter what he’s doing on screen, I’d caution against relying too much on the “whose line is it anyway” approach to comedy.
This is the End is a clever twist on not only apocalypse tales, but religion itself and lazy Sandler-ian hang-out vehicles – it might best be described as the middle child between Kevin Smith’s more sincere Dogma and the aforementioned, infinitely more infantile Grown Ups – and it’s fun just to share in this cast’s company, especially in this novel context where they avoid conventional characterization by instead cutting to their respective chases and just reveling shamelessly in the viewers’ broadest assumptions about their real-life personas, yet its potential to blaze a trail in post-modern meta commentary, and more fundamentally its potential to be the funniest film of the year given all these exciting ingredients is attenuated by its overestimating insistence on said cast’s off-the-cuff wackiness. That is, it trusts the principle stars (Rogen, Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride) to provide most of the entertainment by way of whatever they come up on the spot while riffing in front of the cameras. This could probably work (see: the first few Christopher Guest mockumentaries, though even those were pretty controlled), and maybe it did if the Apatow-family tradition of filming reel after reel of alternate takes to every single line of dialogue was carried on here but Rogen and Evan Goldberg just ultimately chose weaker takes for the final cut. However it happened, it’s disheartening to report that from beginning to end, a lot of the punchlines, zingers, and general dialogue never ignite more than a smile’s worth of comic fireworks. Gut-busting, tear-jerking, momentum-building, off-your-seat level laughter rarely occurs throughout the picture – though there is a near-perfect moment between Franco and McBride when their rivalry comes to a head over a porn magazine – despite that stacked cast and an anything-goes narrative (one that should, if nothing else, secure the movie’s position as a cult favorite, given all the demons, rather brutal violence and gore, odd story tangents, Exorcism and Mad Max parodies, and so many celebrity cameos that like Altman’s The Player some familiar faces don’t even get a line to speak). There’s plenty that will incite chuckles and an outburst here or there, but the rhythm is consistently choppy due to the hit-or-miss quality of the improv’ing and Rogen/Goldberg’s directorial inexperience in editing it all together (or perhaps in not hiring the best editor..?). Even the much-talked-about opening with all the walk-ons by Rogen associates like Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Michael Cera, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, and more has trouble landing – it should be a virtuoso scene, beat after beat of sharp sight gags, surprise appearances, and brief, choice one-liners, and does aspire to this, but the material used, while appreciably silly and over-the-top, is weaker than you’d expect from the writers of Superbad and so many of the naturally funny, quick-witted riff-wizards who elevated movies like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express into such re-watchable hang-out favorites and arguably some of the best comedies of the past decade (yes, there are additional reasons why those movies are so awesome, but let’s stick to the point here).
On the other hand, you could say that not trying too hard – the stoner’s anthem, possibly enscribed on the Rogen family crest – is also what makes This is the End and many previous movies made by members of this party so inviting. Even when the jokes are lethargic, predictable, or repetitive, they come from a relatable point of view and the actors each possess an easygoing, down-to-earth appeal (even douche-y McBride) that, as corroborated in interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and common testimony, while simultaneously bravely contrasted within this film itself by self-deprecatingly supposing that they’re all assholes (except Baruchel, who Rogen/Goldberg sweetly portray as the only good-hearted normal guy among the gang), suggests that that’s who they really are, pointedly Rogen himself. Regular funny guys being themselves on screen, never striving towards pretense (well, I don’t know about Franco, but he’s plenty self-aware about it) yet always making a winning, happy-go-lucky impression (even more so in this movie’s context, as we are encouraged to remember their past roles). Again, there’s a temptation to make a Sandler comparison here, but the difference is that Mr. Billy Madison, while in fact an often funny person in the late ’90s when his primary weapons were profanity and absurdist humor, has since then, either from the spoils of fame or his own supreme laziness as a human being, embraced a much safer, formulaic groove as a comedian, a horrifying, depressing limbo between an obnoxious 11-year-old spaz and a soulless middle-age burn-out. It’s awful, let’s move on.
In This is the End, Seth Rogen and company continue as ever to come across as a pack of slightly-neurotic goofball kids with a charmingly raunchy sense of humor, albeit now with the exaggerated entitlement of Hollywood royalty. Though not as accurately funny or satirical with this idea as they have been at their best elsewhere, their giddiness amidst all the antics is instantly contagious and the camaraderie is strongly felt. If it doesn’t feel funny enough, that may be due to unreasonable expectations from the once-in-a-lifetime premise and huge cast. And anyway, what’s sacrificed in quality jokes is made up for in situational madness. Most movies that these guys make are more like expanded sitcoms, but this time there’s a focus on ever-more-bizarre-than-the-last set-pieces. In that regard, Rogen and Goldberg show that they are decent helmsmen who can grease up a crowd and build some kinetic energy in the action-y sequences; even if the seams often show and the movie might’ve benefitted from some formalist discipline, not to mention a script-tightening, with them being entirely on their own for this one, they deliver a solid success. There’s an impressive scope to the special effects, too, especially in the final showdown. The otherworldly imagery isn’t cobbled together in an ugly rush like in Dogma; the monsters are kinda disturbing and badass, actually…to be fair, this movie had $22 million more to spend than Kevin Smith’s, but thankfully, it shows. And the actual closing scene, the end as promised in the title, is a perfectly fitting epitaph for the whole Apatow crew, making one last pop culture reference that is at once unexpected, cute, gratuitous, and ludicrously insipid. Having taken the meta-edge within the Apatow universe (as seen in the brushes with celebrity during Undeclared, Knocked Up, Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Funny People, and This is 40) to its inevitable, even a bit revolutionary extreme – has a mainstream movie ever been made where all the main characters play themselves? – and beyond that even to its very grave, I can’t help but assume with disappointment that whatever comes next for these collaborators won’t even try to follow up on the ambition and finality of the self-evaluating mission statement they’ve issued here. It’s said that there are four stages a film genre goes through: primitive (unacknowledged, still developing), classical (the apex of popular and creative fruition), parodic (whereby the dogma ossifies and becomes subject to ridicule), and revisionist (openly questioning and subverting itself). Now that Seth Rogen and the gang have effectively navigated the full spectrum, maybe the best response to This is the End is to get back to basics and just focus on being funny again, without any tricks. Then again, without that sense of audacity, we’d never get Jonah Hill impersonating Woody Harrelson in a Sweded “Pineapple 2” trailer while Franco throws a handful of cocaine in McBride’s face and he and Rogen discuss ending the sequel with a cannibal sacrifice. Maybe it’s better after all to let these guys be as bonkers as they want.