In almost (gulp) 40 years, I've been to three films where the theater shook from the audience laughing so hard: Borat, Knocked Up, and, now, This is the End. Granted the crowd attending the sneak preview of This the End at the American Film Institute (AFI) were aspiring filmmakers salivating over the careers of the film's auteurs Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Even if you don't dream of being Hollywood's "it" boys, this self-referential buddy comedy is a fun ride thanks to the cast's infectious chemistry.
Comedy's reigning princes Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride star in this rambunctious feature, which hits theaters tomorrow, chronicling their efforts to survive in James Franco's mansion after the apocalypse hits Hollywood. At the heart of the story, Jay and Seth's longtime friendship is strained, as Seth has grown tight with other man-children. Seth is eager for his friends to all be besties. So after spending the afternoon smoking just about every manner of weed available, Seth drags Jay to a housewarming party at Franco's new palatial pad, which as Jay jokes, looks fit for Pablo Escobar. There, Rihanna, Emma Watson, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Michael Cera, amongst others, party. That is, until the apocalypse hits.
Their friendships are tested, but the boys finally realize that all they have to do to get to heaven is act nice in your last few minutes, sometimes seconds, on earth/camera. (The writers, who are secular Jews, may have read the Cliff's Notes version of the New and Old Testaments.) Oh, and heaven is a giant bar-mitzvah, with the Backstreet Boys as the band. It's probably not so different from their experience here on earth. They cast the film by asking certain friends if they'd be down to (be paid handsomely) to play "themselves," and then wrote the parts, and others they contacted after they'd written the script. Outside of using their own names, the actors aren't all playing heightened versions of themselves. Take Michael Cera, who's known to be earnest, who makes a memorable cameo as a coke snorting, sleazy (and successful) ladies' man. In a talk back after the screening Rogen said that he and Goldberg wrote a "cokehead maniac" character and then asked themselves, "Which of our friends is least likely to do that?" They contacted Cera.
Meanwhile Jonah Hill gently mocks his public persona as a self-satisfied douche by being cloyingly nice to Jay, sporting a diamond earring, and relishing in his Oscar nod performance in Moneyball when possible. There are a few (read: not enough) barbs about Franco's real-life attempts to be considered a renaissance man. Rogen adroitly pokes fun of Franco's actual paintings, which include matching canvases of the names "Rogen" and "Franco." Still, they could've gone further, as Franco's has so many known affections, from starting (and abandoning) multiple graduate degrees simultaneously to designing clothes for the overpriced denim line 7 for All Mankind.
The insularity of their world is evident in what you won't see — anyone who isn't successful — and a palpable absence of estrogen. Improviser Brian Huskey, who makes a head-spinning turn, is the only person with legitimate stage time that isn't yet a household name. Mindy Kaling cracks a couple jokes in a too-brief cameo, but the only female to have more than a minute on screen is Emma Watson. The crux of the boys' interaction with her is that they don't want to come off as "rapey." Watson plays a self-serious tough cookie, who threatens to hack them with an axe, before running off. Outside of being fodder for masturbation or rape jokes, women are invisible.
In an interview, Baruchel claimed that the film is, "the most meta thing we've done," but that doesn't make it meta. Unlike Superbad, This is the End doesn't shed enough light on Jay and Rogen's friendship or the toll that fame, money, miles apart can take on adult friendships. Nor does the film say anything new about what it takes to be part of the cool kids in comedy scene, outside of being self-involved, out of shape, and male. Rogen and Goldberg could have delved deeper into the psychology, the way their guru Judd Apatow did in Funny People. The self-parody is more in line with 30 Rock and Arrested Development. There are funny riffs about the gluten-free fad and unspoken rules about masturbating at a friend's home. This is definitely not a Hollywood send-up with the subversive levity of Steve Martin's L.A. Story or Robert Altman's The Player.
Goldberg and Rogen, who are making their directorial debut, acknowledged in the talkback that the studio worried the characters wouldn't be relatable. Rogen said, "we're playing idiots, and everyone knows an idiot." Judging by their repeated box-office smash hits and Rogen's shooting schedule, these men aren't idiots. Chilling and smoking pot plays an instrumental role in bringing the characters together on screen, but Rogen and Goldberg are hardly slackers. Their first big break as a writers came on Sacha Baron-Cohen's cult-classic TV show Da Ali G Show. They've even penned an episode of The Simpsons and, of course, their own features, most notably Superbad and Pineapple Express.
Adapted from an eight-minute short film they made for, according to Rogen, about $3,000 in 2007 called Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, This is the End accomplishes what Goldberg and Evan said they set out to do: make themselves laugh. They aren't the only ones who will leave the theaters happy.
This is the End is sure to be manna from heaven for stoners, frat boys, and studio executives at Sony. Sure, 99.9% percent of the population can't relate to what it's like to be handed millions of dollars to, as Rogen said, "do whatever we want." Still, This is the End is a relentlessly funny valentine to male friendship and a primer on pot.
Catie Lazarus is a writer and host of the Employee of the Month Show.