Even while watching the film unfold before one’s eyes, it is hard to believe that This is the End exists. Not necessarily because the humor is so ludicrously silly and completely unhinged at every possible turn – though I certainly cannot pinpoint the last time I encountered a big studio comedy this ruthlessly deranged – but because in addition to being screamingly funny, the film’s larger ambitions are surprisingly high, and it executes pretty spectacularly on just about everything it sets out to do.
Be it Hollywood satire, apocalyptic mayhem, thrilling action set pieces, or most importantly, legitimately sharp character work and thematic insight, This is the End plays host to a broad swath of impressive cinematic accomplishments. The many elements this film nails should not work together so seamlessly, and yet there is the proof, right there on screen, nestled between James Franco and Danny McBride having a ridiculous, overblown argument about masturbation protocol and Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel working through emotionally charged issues of broken friendships and arrested adolescence.
Rogen co-writes and co-directs the film with his longtime creative partner Evan Goldberg – the duo are best known for Superbad and Pineapple Express, though this is their directorial debut – and they make it clear, right off the bat, that this film shall be a near-equal blend of absurdity and pathos. It opens with Seth Rogen picking up Jay Baruchel from the airport; both play heightened versions of themselves, as all actors in the film do, and while jokes stemming from this conceit immediately play an important part, what matters first is establishing the strained relationship the two actors share. Seth and Jay (in the film, at least), used to be best friends, but they have grown very far apart, and while Seth tries to make Jay’s visit to Los Angeles as pleasant as possible, he does not quite know how to connect with Jay anymore. Jay, for his part, cannot communicate his own feelings, so when Seth suggests they attend a wild party at James Franco’s house, Seth is unable to understand Jay’s reluctance.
It is important that the film ground itself in these basic human terms right from the start, because as soon as Seth and Jay arrive at Franco’s place, things get very silly very fast. A seemingly endless supply of celebrities is in attendance, all playing wildly self-deprecating or fantastical versions of themselves, and the results are uproariously audacious. Faces like Jason Segel, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kevin Hart, Rihanna, Emma Watson (who is awesome, and returns for a screamingly funny sequence later on) and, best of all, a narcissistic, oversexed, cocaine-addicted version of Michael Cera all make appearances, and Rogen and Goldberg make sure each of them get big, clever laughs.
But the main characters are played by Rogen, Franco, Baruchel, Craig Robertson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride, the six of whom wind up stranded at Franco’s house after massive earthquakes and raging fires begin tearing Los Angeles apart. As zany as the party of clashing celebrity personalities might be, the film only gets loopier once the apocalypse gets underway, and these six dim-witted comedians, all of whom have real-life and fictional history together, must struggle to survive in James Franco’s gorgeous luxury home as giant horned monsters stalk the surrounding neighborhood.
That I can actually write that sentence is a big part of why I enjoy This is the End as much as I do. The film is absolutely unafraid to go big, to be as vulgar, over-the-top, violent, or downright silly as possible in service of a laugh. For the most part, the jokes land hard and fast, and even outside the big comic set-pieces or attention-grabbing moments of vulgarity, there are dozens of smaller, subtler gags permeating every last frame, and plenty of smart, subtle humor ingrained into character history and interactions. The film is definitely ‘insider-y’ in its approach to comedy, and those who have followed Rogen and company’s career all the way back to Freaks and Geeks in the 1990s will probably get the most out of it, but even those who come in absolutely cold will be won over by the sheer go-for-broke energy of the comedy.
Yet as ridiculous as This is the End may be from start to finish, this is nevertheless a strikingly tight piece of writing and production. The basic narrative and comedic fundamentals of celebrity comedians playing themselves in the middle of the apocalypse naturally sound somewhat gimmicky, but in execution, every creative choice, no matter how ludicrous, works in favor of a clear and compelling thematic arc.
Rogen, Baruchel, Franco and all the rest play themselves because shedding that extra layer of artifice gives room for immediacy and honesty in the characterization and interpersonal relationships, in addition to the vast amounts of comic potential created. Similarly, the apocalypse is faced not only as license for crazy end-of-world antics, but because it allows for a significant underlying discussion of human morality as it relates to celebrity identity, maturity, and friendship. Seth and Jay’s strained friendship is an ongoing arc, and while it is the film’s emotional foundation, it is only one of several very honest character conflicts in play. Everybody who winds up in that house – with the possible exception of Danny McBride, who is just a whirling dervish of narcissism and stupidity – brings baggage with them, and the ensuing dynamics are constantly analyzed and evolved.
In short, there is a lot more going on here than laughs – I am absolutely astounded at how deeply I came to understand and care for these characters and their physical and mental well-being – and yet as the film goes along, and the survivors have to start seriously confronting their flaws, it only grows increasingly funny. As Rogen and Goldberg dive deeper – whether it is in the characterization, apocalypse mythology, or visual scale of death and destruction – the bigger the laughs become, steadily increasing in force right up until the uproariously funny (and certifiably insane) closing moments. The belief in so many modern comedies seems to be that genuine emotions, three-dimensional characters, and thoughtful, articulate subtext are all counterproductive to the goal of producing laughter, but nothing could be further from the truth. In cinema, as in any narrative form, the richer one makes one’s work, the more the audience is invited to invest, and that investment pays off across the board. The more the characters matter to us, the stronger the jokes surrounding them land. The smarter or more developed the story, the greater context there is for producing a wide range of humor. And the harder one works to create emotional resonance, the more we connect with the overall experience – including the jokes.
These are artistic philosophies that Rogen and Goldberg have always appeared to live by, but in This is the End, their grasp on the form is stronger than ever. It is as clear a contemporary example as I can point to of a comedy nailing every part of the big picture evenly, across the board, and I think the way the audience’s laughter practically drowns out the soundtrack by the time the final minutes roll around is proof of what legitimate depth does for comedy. This is the End is an unexpectedly poignant, side-splittingly hilarious treat, unique from everything else I have seen this year and truly, endlessly surprising in its extreme audacity.
This is the End is a surprising and audacious pleasure, big on certifiably insane laughs but fueled by genuine intelligence and heart.