There’s a scene in Ricky Gervais’ show, Extras, that I love deeply. Gervais plays an actor cast in a play. The play’s director is Sir Ian McKellen. What transpires is beautifully inspired comedy, as the legendary Sir Ian presents himself as a complete buffoon, explaining to Gervais that his technique as an actor is to pretend he is somebody else. You see, Ian McKellan isn’t, in fact, a wizard. He had to pretend to be one for Peter Jackson during the filming of Lord of the Rings. “How did I know what to say?” he explains. “The words were written down for me in a script. How did I know where to stand? People told me.” If it weren’t a figure of such reverence saying it, the scene wouldn’t be funny at all. Extras got great mileage out of that particular gag as stars ranging from Daniel Radcliffe to David Bowie would pop in to joyfully offer up the worst possible versions of themselves. The show business settings of programs like Entourage or The Larry Sanders Show made it very easy for stars to lampoon themselves. Jim Carrey’s vicious appearance on the finale of The Larry Sanders Show is still probably the funniest thing he’s ever done.
So, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I have a real affection when stars burst the bubble of their own celebrity and fall on their swords in the name of a good laugh. The more awful the version of themselves they play, the funnier it gets.
I say all this because I immensely enjoyed Seth Rogan’s new comedy This Is the End, and that might largely be due to my love of stars taking flamethrowers to their own images. I’m an easy mark for this kind of thing, but I think the film Rogan and his co-writer (and co-director) Evan Goldberg have made is a comedy of real merit. It’s the Bill Murray cameo from Zombieland blown up to feature length. And, I mean that as a compliment.
As the film opens, Rogan is at LAX to pick up his good friend Jay Baruchel who’s just arrived from Canada. Jay doesn’t really enjoy Los Angeles, so Seth has promised a weekend where they can hang out, get high, and just enjoy their friendship. Almost immediately, there’s a complete change of plan as Seth drags Jay to a housewarming party being thrown by James Franco. Jay doesn’t like Franco, and he despises Jonah Hill. But, once they arrive at Franco’s house, all hell breaks loose. Literally. A 9.7 earthquake shatters the city, the Hollywood Hills are engulfed in flames, a giant sinkhole appears in Franco’s front yard, and many, many celebrities die horrible deaths. I loved the film’s combination of splatter and physical comedy.
After the initial mayhem, Rogan, Jay, and Jonah are holed up in Franco’s new house. They’re joined by Craig Robinson and Danny McBride. It doesn’t take long to realize that a bunch of pampered actors don’t really have the survival skills to survive the Apocalypse.
First thing’s first. The film’s a comedy, so the first test it has to pass is is it funny? Yes, it is, and at times very funny. Everybody is having a ball twisting their own images, but two people in particular need to be praised for the lengths they go to trashing themselves. The first is Michael Cera, who appears here at Franco’s house party as a gleefully cocked-up, sexually deviant nightmare. The second I won’t mention by name (This would be a horrible spoiler.), but he cameos late in the film in a way that is both kind of gross but pretty hilarious. This nameless actor has really won me over in the past couple of years, but that he’s willing to present himself the way he does here makes me really love him.
But, as fun as it is, I think This Is the End is more than just the sum of its gags. As they’ve proven in other films they’ve written like Superbad and Pineapple Express, Rogan and Goldberg are talented writers and they create real screenplays. Are their films vulgar? Oh my, yes. But, these are genuinely well-structured movies on a purely writing level. I wrote a piece for the site last year about the dire straits feature film comedy is in these days, and I think it’s largely due to weak scripts. For whatever reason, comedies today just aren’t very well written. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of a real movie This Is the End turned out to be. In addition to turning in a surprisingly tight script, Rogan and Goldberg also handle some action and well-placed CGI demons like pros.
I loved how the characters in the film never try to solve the problem the Apocalypse presents, as most films invariably would. In a more formulaic picture, they’d be running around trying to find some sort of a talisman that could reverse the effects of everything that happens. These guys are dealing with the End of Times as described in Revelations. There’s simply no coming back from it, and I loved that choice.
I was also surprised by how much the film turned out to be about the difficulty of maintaining friendships. The main cast here all kind of came up through the Apatow Triple A program. They’ve known each other for years, going back as far as the great Freaks and Geeks. I can’t imagine how negotiating that kind of new fame and professional success would have been for them. They were all so young! I know these are exaggerated performances, but This Is the End is pretty frank about how their relationships have changed over time, and it also deals with old resentments they have for each other. No matter how ridiculous the movie gets (and it gets pretty insane), the relationships between these guys always felt very grounded. Since this could easily be re-written as fictional characters, I wonder how much of the film was autobiographical.
Not everything is perfect. As true Apatow offspring, Rogan and Goldberg let things go on a little too long; the film would likely work better at a brisker run time. It does drag here and there. A sequence involving the guys shooting a sequel to Pineapple Express seem a bit self-congratulatory and not very funny, though I liked how they shot it using the video camera from 127 Hours.
Last week, we got the dead-on-arrival, lazy high concept comedy, The Internship, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. This Is the End is likely an even higher concept, but the writers made it something personal and very, very funny.