In Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut, “This Is the End,” the apocalypse descends on the Hollywood Hills, picking off celebrities and nobodies alike from a party at James Franco’s geometric mansion. Among those left alive are Rogen, sycophantic sweetie Jonah Hill, art-collecting Franco, Craig Robinson (whose t-shirt blares the imperative: TAKE YO PANTIES OFF), horny Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, playing the reluctant Canuck appalled by the cheesy evils of Los Angeles. The actors all play themselves — or hyperbolic versions of themselves.
The men are forced to hole up together, with only a dozen water bottles, a Milky Way bar, a prop-revolver from Franco’s “Flyboys” and a swath of illegal substances to sustain them while an engulfing fire burns outside. For most of the film, they’re trying to figure out what’s plaguing L.A. Is it what most upper-class Angelenos fear most, an earthquake? Is it a zombie attack, like an ax-wielding Emma Watson suspects? Baruchel begins pointing to final pages in the Bible, convinced that the End of Days is nigh.
And, as the title tells us, it is. “This Is the End” takes a devilish glee — in that gross-out, dicks-out sort of way — in not only seeing Hollywood decimated, but also the celebrities that populate it.
As Thom Andersen’s epic documentary essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself” illustrates, L.A. has long been the rueful cinematic focus of complete catastrophe and playful industry self-loathing. In that film, which in most ways is as humorously different as could be from “This Is the End,” Andersen narrates impassively while editing together hyperbolically destructive scenes from 1997’s “Volcano,” 1996’s “Independence Day” and “Escape from L.A.” and 1974’s “Earthquake.” As he shows us L.A. blown, lasered and shaken to bits over and over again, Andersen cites scholar Mike Davis’ claim “that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles, a guilty pleasure shared by most of its audience. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific, or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault.”
It’s generally the same thing here, though “This Is the End” shifts its focus from the City of Angels’ famous places to its famous faces. (And, incidentally, much of the film was shot on-set in Louisiana, doubling for L.A.). Mindy Kaling and Rihanna get sucked into a sinkhole; they aren’t even given the dignity of half-decent CGI effects for their send-offs. Michael Cera, as a hilarious playboy cokehead, is run through by a felled street light and worries about his misplaced smartphone in his final departing words. Baruchel promises David Krumholtz that he can lift him out of the celebrity-eating sinkhole, a promise promptly abandoned when Krumholtz proves too heavy.
The six goofy man-children who do survive are lotted with an appropriate fate: Having to cram all of their egos into one house. Rogen and co-writer Goldberg, who were inspired to pen the feature based on their 2007 short film “Seth and Jay Versus the Apocalypse,” take obvious pleasure in skewering the characters’ onscreen as well as their public personas, reducing their celebrity status to pathetic lows. One of the funniest sequences in the film involves Franco and McBride, who have a blow-up over where masturbation should and shouldn’t take place inside the house. Meanwhile, another form of masturbation, the mental sort, happens when the boys decide to film their own trailer to a “Pineapple Express” sequel.
If the premise is somewhat smug and self-congratulatory, the film surprisingly doesn’t play that way. The heartfelt friendship between Rogen and Baruchel is strangely relatable in the midst of all the raunchy shenanigans. The two fellow Canadians, who were closer a few years back, now have a strained relationship because of their different approaches to success. Rogen has embraced it, with a tricked-out house and big-name friends. And Baruchel insists on visiting L.A. only when duty calls, fancying himself above the Hollywood game-playing. The astute observation is made slyly near the end of the film that these are actually two sides of the same coin.
In that vein, “This Is the End” doesn’t stray far from the usual tenets of bromantic comedies. There are very few women in the film, though the one extended sequence with Emma Watson and her ax provides a clever perspective on the marginalized role of women in such studio endeavors. When she arrives solo at the house, having fended off all manner of apocalyptic dangers, Watson overhears an uncomfortable conversation initiated by Baruchel about how the six guys should be careful not to give off a “rapey” vibe. And so the few minutes of female screen time come to an end, as Watson decides she’d rather take her chances in the wilds of the apocalypse than spend another moment in this man cave.
It’s hard to offer too many serious interpretations of a movie that features sharting jokes, a lot of pee-drinking, and Jonah Hill getting sexually molested by the Devil. “This Is the End” rises above the over-tired gross-out comedy genre partly because of its meta celebrities-parodying-themselves trick, but it mostly stands out because it’s genuinely funny.
As demonstrated by a closing sequence that involves the Backstreet Boys, the film is joyfully weird in a way that differentiates it from most studio comedies. It takes a joke and then, at the risk of making the joke over-long, lets it play out to bizarre and eccentric conclusions, a technique Rogen no doubt learned and honed from mentor Judd Apatow.
If that format of humor has become par for the course, the kooky whimsicality underlying it is something typically absent from studio endeavors, either for fear of treading out of fart/weed-joke territory, or from a plain lack of creativity.
“This Is the End” isn’t particularly subversive — it doesn’t so much poke fun of the system from which it hails as the people there who have made it to the top, and even then there’s a sense of in-crowd camaraderie. But the film does manage to coyly sidle the apocalypse up next to that very crowd, and point out the ludicrousness of one in the face of the other. Hollywood, in all its posturing, self-impressed, faux-self-effacing glory, has a hard time playing itself seriously when tumbling into a fiery sinkhole.
Criticwire grade: B+