Hollywood’s track record for stretching a simple gimmick into a 90-minute comedy has not been great. But now, the cast and crew of This is the End laughs in the face of Weekend at Bernie’s, Year One, and Me, Myself, and Irene, and somehow manages it so that this movie flies past the hundred-minute mark feeling almost as breezy and morbidly funny as it began.
The “trick” here, of course, is that all the actors play themselves. Had they taken on different names and resumes, This is the End might be a mildly amusing rehash of the disaster movie genre, but since Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Jay Baruchel were cool with poking fun at their previous acting projects and portraying themselves as pricks, the movie takes on a subversive, metafictional layer that has surprising bite. And, oh yeah, there are some pretty funny masturbation jokes, too.
Granted, this isn’t a groundbreaking or even a consistently great comedy, but the jokes land more often than not, and there is something undeniably fun about watching the Apatow crew bitch and moan their way through the apocalypse. They also call in their equally famous friends to get some brilliant, unexpected cameos that are used sparingly but effectively.
In these respects, This is the End provides just about everything fans would want. (They even manage a couple of subtle but reverent Freaks and Geeks references.) And maybe it’s unfair to expect this kind of film to do anything more than that. However, I could help but feel like the whole thing was a bit cheaply constructed. Co-writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg took on directorial duties for the first time, and this may be where ran into trouble. Nobody is asking for Terrence Malick-inspired visuals, but the film has a low-rent look that just pales in comparison to the more cohesive, cinematic polish of movies like 21 Jump Street or Knocked Up. These movies starring the Apatow crew rarely have the cheap or frantic tone that a movie like Year One or Scary Movie does, so This is the End’s lack of finesse unfortunately stands out all the more. It kind of felt like they blew the budget on a couple of CGI-heavy set pieces and figured no one would notice if they cut back on production values a bit and also set 85% of the movie in the same location.
Luckily, the movie is funny and smart enough to excuse most of this. Sure, the rape humour, gore, and dick jokes feel a bit easy, and it would have been nice to get even more of the character-based humour that preys on the actors’ individual tics and insecurities. But the cast here sells what they have to work with. Everyone is great in their own way, but Danny McBride might just steal the show with a balls-to-the-wall crazy version of himself. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Jay Baruchel doesn’t even have many of the big punchlines, but embraces his persnickety, “voice of reason” persona and is actually really good as the closest thing to a “relatable” character that the film offers. He’s also one of the few players who proves to have the chops to pull off the moments of overt vulnerability and (comedic) terror convincingly, which makes him a welcome anchor for the viewer to share the experience with.
Does This is the End completely earn its requisite “heartfelt” moments, given that it spends most of its runtime consciously trying to one-up itself in terms of shock humour and morbidity? Perhaps not. But the character moments are welcome breathers from the chaos nonetheless, and some of the funniest moments are the offhanded anecdotes that no doubt reflect Rogen and Baruchel’s real-life friendship. It’s nice to see the genuine camaraderie among the cast play out, and This is the End is an all-too-rare project that seems to remain true to its vision and gleefully unique in its spirit.