This Is The End is everything you think it is: an indulgent self-referential comedy filled with Hollywood in-jokes and stuffed with cameos designed to delight those who are well-versed in the Apatowverse. But This Is The End is also something very surprising: it’s actually funny, and the in-jokes and self-referential qualities add to the movie rather than distract. More than that, it’s a solidly put together apocalypse story that builds into an impressively sweet finale that really extols the simple virtues of true friendship and being a decent dude.
Jay Baruchel stars as Jay Baruchel, who has come to visit Los Angeles from Canada. He’s staying with his friend Seth Rogen (Seth Rogen), an ex-pat Canuck who has found enormous Hollywood success. But Jay hates LA, and he hates Rogen’s entire friend group, a trendy and hip bunch of young comedy actors. Rogen manages to drag Jay out to a party at Franco’s (James Franco), where Jay’s worst fears are realized - a coked up Michael Cera (you get this joke by now) is getting his asshole eaten out in a bathroom, Craig Robinson is singing songs to Rihanna about her pussy and Jonah Hill is an overbearingly nice guy who keeps trying to insinuate himself into Jay’s life. Everybody at the party is somebody, and they’re all rich and good looking and don’t have any of the down to earth qualities that Jay appreciates - and once found in Seth, who has been changing.
But the party doesn’t last long. A huge earthquake hits, and then a strange event - people are sucked into the sky by bolts of blue light. Fires and riots break out. A massive sinkhole opens up in Franco’s front yard, leading down deep into a fiery pit beneath the earth. Many Funny Or Die level comedy actors tumble in, dying horribly. Paul Rudd, terrified, crushes a woman’s skull under his foot as he flees. The body count is high. A Freaks and Geeks reunion seems to now be impossible.
A handful of the partygoers survive. Trapped inside Franco’s house they have to figure out how to make it through this new world of horror. Just outside the door there are terrifying sounds and strange creatures. The Hollywood Hills are ablaze. Supplies are low. And worst of all, it turns out Danny McBride had crashed the party and passed out in the bathtub. Now they’re trapped in the house with him. Jay thinks he knows what’s happening - it’s The Rapture, and they’ve all been left behind.
Comedically this could all work without the actors playing themselves. This could be just another house party, and Seth could be named John and Jay could be named Teddy or something. But there’s a shortcut quality to the actors playing themselves that works; you understand James Franco’s artistic persona (and possibly his strange manlove for Seth Rogen), so there’s not a lot of need to build that characteristic up. Maybe in fifty years a viewer with no background on these guys will be baffled by This Is The End, but in this exact moment - and for the target audience - it’s like wearing comfy old slippers.
Even still, even if you didn’t get the “Jonah Hill, America’s sweetheart” jokes or the Pineapple Express 2 trailer, the actors are playing versions of themselves just exaggerated enough to be clearly and broadly funny. What’s more, the interplay between them is absolutely extraordinary. They interact the way you think you and your friends interact; they’re like the Platonic ideal of what buddies hanging out would be like. The zingers and the jokes fly constantly, they’re almost always funny and they’re always - ALWAYS - based deep in character. And because the jokes are always coming from character, the movie slowly accumulates emotion and meaning. This film begins as a delivery system for great laughs but slowly - almost imperceptibly - morphs into something with depth.
It’s also a great survival movie. Seth Rogen and his co-writer and co-director Evan Goldberg truly thought out the situation. They’re real nerds, and so they’ve probably sat down stoned and considered the age old question of ‘How would we survive if the end of the world happened now and we were trapped in this house?,’ and that consideration shows. The survival stuff - being scared of outsiders, the dwindling supply of food, the friction between everybody as fear and tension wears them down - would work in a movie that wasn’t also in-jokey. That complements and supports the in-jokey bits.
And then! And then the movie really gets good. The third act ups the ante in a huge way - I’m talking giant-cocked demons off the covers of heavy metal albums here, I’m talking roving gangs of cannibal wastelanders - but it never drops the basic humanity and characters. That’s what’s amazing about This Is The End - it changes from an in-joke-filled Funny or Die sketch into a pretty good cabin fever movie and finally into a truly epic apocalyptic saga without ever once losing sight of the characters and their relationships. That’s just masterful.
There are a lot of MVPs in this movie, ranging from cameo players (Emma Watson has a terrific run, and Michael Cera is sheer, unadulterated joy in his few scenes) to the main cast, but the big swinging dick in This Is The End has to be Danny McBride. McBride is playing the uber-version of Kenny Powers, a total asshole who gets not just one astonishingly cool entrance in the movie, but two. He’s the irritant in the clamshell that keeps This Is The End working throughout the lengthy second act, and McBride almost single-handedly upholds the film’s tone, allowing it to get weird while also remaining grounded in character.
Everybody else is great as well. I love the shots Franco is willing to take at himself (when he eats something after days of starving and says ‘Mmmm good,’ a Spider-Man 3 reference, I all but died). Rogen and Baruchel anchor the film’s central ‘be good to your bros’ conceit beautifully, and Craig Robinson explodes into the big leagues here. Everybody is willing to be ridiculous and sort of shitty and venal, but they’re also able to rehabilitate themselves in the end as the movie takes on a religious point of view that would make any holy roller fairly pleased.
Most of all, This Is The End is funny. It’s the funniest movie of the year, and it’s going to take a truly hilarious movie to knock it off that perch. I was laughing about jokes in this film for days after seeing it, and now that it’s opened wide I’m excited to see it again with friends so I can hear them laugh. What had been a movie I truly dreaded - what looked like a film all about Seth Rogen and friends disappearing up their own very pampered asses - turned out to be a movie so thoroughly funny, so well-made and so endlessly endearing that I can’t imagine not loving it.