While Jonah Hill and James Franco have each earned Oscar nominations, with Danny McBride finding roles both dramatic and comedic on the small and big screen, Jay Baruchel showing new shades on the stage and Craig Robinson adding textures to his comic persona, it’s really been Seth Rogen who has more or less continued to play a version of himself since day one. Even in parts that potentially stretched his skills in “Green Hornet” and “50/50,” the affable goofball with a predilection for weed was never too far away. And so, perhaps it only makes sense that he would co-write and co-direct (with Evan Goldberg) as well as co-star in “This Is The End,” which requires nothing more than everyone involved offering riffs on their established personas. It’s certainly not rocket science, but your mileage with the movie will depend on how much you like these guys to begin with, because even if you’re a fan, the one joke premise has a hard time sustaining a full length movie.
And maybe that’s not a surprise since the movie is based on a short film, “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse,” a sorta cult-y effort that never officially got released but did get a trailer on YouTube and enough interest that a feature version was optioned. Welcome to Hollywood. And as these things sometimes go, the concept was supersized as it made its way to the big screen. No longer just Jay and Seth, the pair have recruited everyone they’ve ever worked with, talked to or Twitter-ed at to pop up in the movie as themselves, and at first, it’s pretty fun. Jay makes his way to L.A. from Montreal to visit his best bud Seth for some bro-time, they go to a party that night at James Franco’s house (where 98% of super brief cameos are featured, most of which are seen in the trailers), some freaky apocalyptic shit happens and soon it’s just Seth, Jay, Jonah, James, Craig and eventually Danny barricaded inside, trying to survive and figure out just what the fuck is going on.
The tweaks to the personalities of the main cast are amusing if obvious, with Seth and Jay playing the Seth and Jay we’ve seen a zillion times by now. James has some fun poking at the perception of his pretentiousness (his speech about “what is art” is a highlight), Jonah spins an overly earnest, diplomatic and too-nice version of himself, Craig probably deviates the least from his onscreen persona but it works, while Danny is — shocker — a total fucking (hilarious) asshole. An underlying storyline about Seth and Jay drifting apart gives “This Is The End” the appearance of an arc, but really, the movie is an occasion for these five guys to be stuck in a room, bantering, lobbing quips and arguing with each other. But that’s sort of the problem with the movie too.
In many ways a single location film, its success lives and dies on how engaging Seth and the boys are, and while they bring a lot of energy, and no shortage of laughs, there are also just as many stretches were jokes die on the vine and momentum seems to spin its wheels. When Seth and Jay first venture outside in the early part of the film, when the apocalypse first arrives, it’s funny and exciting because we’re seeing them react to something absurdly extraordinary. But when “This Is The End” gets confined to Franco’s house, we’re just left with these five guys playing off each other with single note variations on their real selves, and there are only so many ways it can be spun. Some splintering and alliances keep things a bit interesting, but the movie far overstays its welcome. There is simply no reason for this movie to be nearly 1 hour and 50 minutes long. Rogen would’ve done well to learn from Sacha Baron Cohen (he was a writer on “Da Ali G Show“) whose trio of films — “Bruno,” “Borat” and “The Dictator” — all run between 80 and 90 minutes max but usually on the shorter end of that spectrum, and for the better. Cohen realizes that packing a big conceptual comic punch in a smaller package is better then a patchy laffer that goes on too long.
As directors, Rogen and Goldberg ease into their debut, as the challenges on this movie were likely minimal, special effects aside (and they’re not that great, probably intentionally, but also likely due to what must’ve been a modest budget), they are really just pointing the camera their buddies and asking them to goof around, and we’d guess there was a lot of improvising happening too. And while one can forgive the modest ambitions of a first time filmmaker, it’s oddly the comic craft that stands out as being the most misshapen here.
In addition to the unwieldy length, which shows little understanding of comic impact and pacing, there are other moments that seem shoe-horned in for no particular reason. A montage set to a parody of Jonny Greenwood‘s “There Will Be Blood” score makes little sense, while half-hearted attempts at visual gags (a billboard for a movie called “Ninja Rapists” appears in the background of one scene, because… why?) don’t seem tied to any grander structure (though Rogen and Goldberg seem to really love giant penises). Other ideas, like everyone recording video confessionals through their experience for posterity is introduced, gets a couple of good jokes in, and is then left behind. “This Is The End” seems divided against itself as both a contained concept premise and a wild, try anything lark, and it makes for a wonky experience at times (a sequence of Craig and Rihanna singing “Take Yo Panties Off” goes on forever and it’s typical of many scenes in here that don’t know when to end). And even for all its cameos, most of them are forgettable and not thought out beyond the idea of having them show up (though a coked out Michael Cera is pretty great). That said, Emma Watson‘s extended appearance is spot on, well executed and funny, and one surprising appearance near the finale, which has managed to stay under wraps, is pretty inspired as well. (And you might want to avoid watching any and all clips from this, as the studio seems hellbent on putting all the best moments online).
But simply, “This Is The End” is a vanity project that hopes that audiences will enjoy hanging out with Seth and the gang as much as they like hanging out with each other. And as someone who can quote “The 40 Year Old Virgin” near verbatim, watches “Freaks & Geeks” annually, who loves both “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express,” and laughed my face off at “Your Highness,” these guys need more than themselves to play off of. They call can all be sharp and smart comics, and in spots during “This Is The End” they certainly are, but there are just as many (perhaps more) that belie a need for structure and a screenplay that affords them more interaction with a world outside their best friends. “This Is The End” may set the Hollywood hills on fire, but one wishes the actually movie had the same amount of comedy heat. [C]