Last December, we took the flimsiest possible excuse to think that the world was ending. Somehow, people were genuinely convinced (or perhaps simply hopeful) that the Mayans had correctly predicted the date of the apocalypse.
Shortly before that, Occupy Wall Street happened. The lower and middle classes had come to feel disenfranchised and took to the streets in protest of the bourgeoisie.
Do you see the connection? I think I do. Bear with me on this.
A while back, I read a Cracked article which argued that after several hundred years of practicing and perfecting the art of storytelling, we as a species have come to think entirely in terms of stories. For some innate reason, we need things to be clear-cut, with good guys and bad guys fighting it out over a narrative with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. “Why are people always so obsessed with the apocalypse?” wrote David Wong. “Because every story has an ending, and the idea that the human ‘story’ can just drag on forever, aimlessly, never progressing toward any particular goal, is just unimaginable. We can’t process it.”
I think that Mr. Wong had the right idea, but he came to the wrong conclusion.
In pretty much every story that I’ve ever heard, it was always brightest just before the dusk. The moment when nothing could be better is also the moment when everything turns to shit. I submit to you, gentle reader, that we are applying this logic to the real world today.
Even the most cynical and nostalgic asshole among us would know on some level that things have never been better than they are now. We’re living in times of abundance and comfort, with luxuries and scientific advances that our forefathers could never have dreamed of. Yet we see all of our remaining flaws and continuing imperfections, and we take them as signs that the bottom is about to fall out.
We of the 21st century live in perpetual fear that everything we’ve enjoyed and accomplished is all built on a house of cards that could collapse at any moment. In fact, I’m sure there are those among us who actually want everything to collapse, just so we can learn from our previous mistakes as we rebuild. This — getting back to my original question — is the connection between apocalypse fantasies and revolution fantasies. Our current belief that the status quo is untenable, and our paranoid uncertainty about what will happen when those with indulgent lives will be forced to do without. Even and especially if that means us.
And so we’re clear, we as a civilization are nowhere near done fantasizing about the apocalypse. If you don’t believe me, look at the movies that have hit our multiplex lately. Just in this year alone (after 12/21/2012, remember), we’ve had Oblivion and After Earth, with Rapture-Palooza, World War Z and The World’s End coming in the months ahead. We were also treated to Warm Bodies and The Host, both are debatably apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic films.
As for the perversion of the American Dream? Sheeeit. Last year brought us The Dictator, The Dark Knight Rises, Cosmopolis, Arbitrage, The Campaign, Killing Them Softly, and Les Miserables. Even if some of those films didn’t actively depict the upper class being taken down a few pegs, they were all clearly made to speak to the current proletariat unrest in some way. I’d even argue that The Lorax, The Hunger Games, and the ongoing Resident Evil series all play into our fears of the rich and powerful as well. As for this year, we’ve got Broken City, Side Effects, Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Great Gatsby. We’ve also got Elysium, The East, The Bling Ring, Paranoia, The Fifth Estate, and The Wolf of Wall Street coming out later this year.
But this weekend, we get a film that combines both: This Is The End.
The premise is as simple as it is novel. Seth Rogen and several of his buddies go to a massive housewarming party at James Franco’s new bunker-like home. Unfortunately, things go terribly sideways when the party is interrupted by The Rapture. A giant portal to Hell opens up on Franco’s front lawn, leaving only Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson to board themselves up in Franco’s house while waiting for rescue.
You may have noticed that I didn’t use character names at any point in the above synopsis. That’s the gimmick of the movie: These actors are all playing heightened versions of themselves. Indeed, that’s the primary source for a lot of this movie’s comedy.
For one thing, these guys all have to realize that they’re actors. There isn’t a single genuine badass in the bunch. In fact, these particular actors don’t even play badasses in the movies (except maybe Franco, on a handful of occasions). As such, their professional skill set is terribly suited to living with minimal food and water. More to the point, these are all ridiculously successful actors who make millions of dollars with every film they take part in. Franco’s home has a flatscreen TV that retracts into the floor, for God’s sake.
These guys are the ultimate personification of the American Dream come true in the modern age. They’re a bunch of pampered dolts who can’t live without their modern luxuries. They’re a bunch of egotistical nitwits who think they’re so important that someone will come save them. More than that, they think they’re so righteous that God will come Rapture them up as well. Needless to say, these bastards are in for a bunch of rude wake-up calls, and we get to laugh as they learn a bunch of lessons the hard way. That or cheer when they finally get a clue.
This brings me to one of the movie’s strongest selling points: The degree to which these actors are all willing to deprecate themselves. In the very first scene of the movie, some guy goes up to Seth Rogen to complain about how he plays the exact same character in every movie, and how annoying his laugh is. I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt to watch that scene.
Also, I won’t spoil who this happens to, but if you ever wanted to see any of these actors die horrible and gruesome deaths, this could be your lucky day. One of them quite literally dies in a fire, and it’s awesome.
The lesser actors and cameos are even better. Emma Watson gets a whole ton of mileage out of her brief screen time, and it was nice seeing Rihanna make a little bit of fun out of her own bad taste in men. Michael Cera plays himself as a horny, coke-fueled asshole, which was funnier than I’d like to admit. Channing Tatum’s cameo literally had me falling out of my seat with laughter. I draw the line, however, at the cameo that ends the film. I don’t care how many people got a ’90s nostalgia kick out of it, the ending had already dragged on for too long by that point and the film really should have cut out before it happened.
(Side note: My personal choice for the most “WTF?” cameo would be Jason “JTRO” Trost, one of the auteurs who brought us The FP. Even if it was just an uncredited background cameo, what the hell was he doing in there?)
Getting back to our principal cast, the comedy and dialogue between them was more of the same “rambling” humor that I’ve come to expect from co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (both of whom made their directorial debuts with this picture, I might add). Yet somehow, I found it to be a lot more bearable this time. I can think of a few possible reasons why.
First of all, I saw this in a packed theater. It’s entirely possible that groupthink might have kicked in at some point. Secondly, I’ve found Seth Rogen to be at his best when he’s more of a secondary character, and that’s basically what happens here. Rogen’s role is absolutely pivotal, don’t get me wrong, but we’re never supposed to believe that he’s the “straight man” of the bunch. No, that role falls more to Jay Baruchel, here positioned as a relative outsider to Seth Rogen’s circle of friends. I’m not exactly a fan of Baruchel either, don’t get me wrong, but he still makes for a much more relatable protagonist than Rogen ever could.
Perhaps more importantly, I felt like the editing was much better here than in previous Rogen movies that I’ve seen. There was a much greater ratio of funny lines to unfunny lines, with less extraneous bullshit to dilute the pacing. More than that, there were multiple times when it felt like the jokes built on each other to greater and funnier results. Watching Pineapple Express, there were some scenes that felt entirely unscripted and bore an uncomfortable resemblance to bad improv. In this movie, it felt more like these actors had spitballed various lines of dialogue while writing the script, and then filtered out everything but the funniest lines.
Of course, there’s probably going to be an unrated and extended cut further down the line to undo all of that, so whatever.
By the way, Pineapple Express should be considered mandatory viewing for anyone who’s thinking about seeing this movie. It should be no surprise that there are a metric ton of pop culture jokes, given the premise of the movie, but Pineapple Express deserves special mention. I read a review that said Pineapple Express should’ve gotten its own credit above the title for this picture, and I couldn’t have put it better myself. There’s a whole storyline in this movie that will either be hilarious or boring, depending on whether or not you’ve seen that previous film. So if you haven’t seen it, or if you can’t be bothered, then don’t bother with this one.
Getting back to the rambling humor, there’s something else about it in this movie that puts it far above, say, Pineapple. I’m specifically referring to the crude and juvenile humor. That type of comedy has long been one of Rogen’s staples, to be sure, but this movie elevates it to the status of what I like to call “brute force humor.” I use the phrase as a description for comedy that is so outrageous and shocking and tasteless, keeping the jokes to such an impossibly obscene level for such an unbearable amount of time, that it will either elicit reactions of abject horror or uncontrollable laughter from the audience. When, for example, the film shows you a 120-foot demon with a giant swinging penis between his legs, you can either bust out laughing or walk out of the theater. There’s really no room for middle ground in that scenario.
Really, that’s the only question that matters with regards to This Is The End. If you’re not the kind of person who can laugh at outrageously crass humor, then this isn’t the movie for you. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a fan of these actors or not, because you’ll get a kick out of watching them tear each other apart either way. However, if you haven’t seen Pineapple Express yet, you really should watch that one before giving this film a chance. It’ll make this movie funnier, and give you more of an appreciation for how far Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have come as humorists and filmmakers.
If nothing else, they certainly picked an ambitious movie for their directorial debut. Most filmmakers would probably have waited a while before filming the end of the goddamned (literally) world.
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