Gene Siskel had a reliable rule for reckoning a work of cinema’s worth: “Is this movie more interesting,” he’d ask, “than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?” He had a point. Stars frequently are our primary attraction, story a distant — sometimes very distant — second.
Siskel grasped the programming value of celebrity long before the culture succumbed to reality television — a phenomenon that’s resulted in outlets making billions off shows offering little more than the opportunity to watch famous people engage in the entertainment equivalent of having lunch. Though, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I remember watching the Osbournes, Bobby Brown, Anna Nicole Smith, Danny Bonaduce and others literally broadcasting unscripted midday meals.
I reference the reviewer’s Nostradamus-caliber insight only because someone has figured out how to harness the principle responsible for so much terrible TV and use it for good. Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg — the Gen Y geniuses behind Superbad — make their directorial debut with This Is the End. It features many of the biggest comic names of the age playing themselves and interacting as one might imagine they do in private life. At least until the apocalypse harshes their buzz.
We know we’re in for meta monkey business from the opening moments. Rogen meets fellow Canadian Jay Baruchel at LAX; before he can whisk Baruchel off for stoner fun in the Hollywood Hills, a fan taunts, “Rogen, you always play the same guy! When you gonna do some acting?” Another fan insists that he do the “Seth Rogen laugh.” This Is the End will skewer a slew of Tinseltown egos in the course of its 107 minutes. This is only the beginning.
Baruchel is bummed to hear that the evening involves a party at James Franco’s house. The She’s Out of My League star feels out of his league with Rogen’s more famous new friends, who include Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. On top of that, Baruchel and Hill have a mini-feud that probably has to do with airs Hill has begun putting on since his Oscar nomination.
“I’m America’s sweetheart,” Hill notes. The film’s portrait of Hollywood’s comic A-list working out its issues behind closed doors is a thing of gut-busting beauty, the movie Funny People wanted to be on steroids. And weed. And ’shrooms. And, hilariously, in Cera’s case, on Scarface-level quantities of coke. The star’s against-type turn is worth the price of admission.
Then the good times are brought to a horrifying halt by the end times. One minute Franco is showing off his art collection (which he painted). The next, guests are plummeting into a fiery sinkhole (adios, Rihanna!) gaping open on the actor’s front lawn (see ya, Mindy Kaling!). Cera meets with an especially gruesome end that somehow manages to be insanely funny at the same time.
The rest is fun that no responsible critic would risk spoiling. So all I’ll say is that Rogen, Baruchel, Robinson, Hill and Franco hole up in Franco’s high-security fortress, eventually joined by Danny McBride and Emma Watson — though she stays only briefly, having picked up a “rapey vibe.”
What follows, as they contemplate the end of the world and review the rules for reaping bennies of the Rapture, is nothing less than a solid hour of largely improvised bits as raunchy, dementedly clever and envelope pushing as any in the history of film. The dirty half dozen may find God at the last minute, but they’ve all been disciples of Judd Apatow for years. So the absence of taste — which will surprise no one — is balanced by an abundance of heart.
The surprise — and this season is overdue for one — is that the formula has never produced a more divine comedy.