I think there are a lot of us who can imagine, in a parallel universe, being best friends with Seth Rogen. The guy is undeniably likable. There’s an almost Tom Hanks quality to his charisma; he’s not the most glamorous or classically handsome celebrity, but he gives an immediate impression of being genuine, down-to-earth, fun, and funny. It’s easy to picture hunkering down on the couch with him and hanging out.
Seth’s face is the first thing we see at the opening of This Is The End — a close-up of him standing in the airport, looking slightly awkward — and there couldn’t be a more appealing way to start the film. We settle back, already sold, ready for a couple hours of bro-ing out with Seth and his buddies. And, for the most part, the film doesn’t disappoint.
After smoking weed and playing video games on Seth’s couch for most of the day, Seth and Jay (Baruchel), who is visiting Los Angeles for the weekend, make their way to James Franco’s mansion (“Who is he, Pablo Escobar?” Jay demands, looking up the enormous building). The party going on there is populated by celebrities: Emma Watson, Rihanna, Craig Robinson, Mindy Kaling, a coked out and chauvinistic Michael Cera, a cloying and brown-nosing Jonah Hill. A good time is had by all (except for Jay, who spends most of the party sulking) until an enormous earthquake shakes the city, blue rays of light start pulling people into the sky, and the rest of the partygoers fall into a sinkhole in James’s lawn. Soon only Seth, Jay, James, Jonah, Craig, and Danny McBride remain, barricaded into James’s house.
It’s an absurd premise, and the majority of the film is just that: absurd and tasteless, and wonderfully so. The six friends blunder through every horrifying situation they encounter, flustered and hilariously incompetent. But when they aren’t being ravished by demons, performing DIY exorcisms, being robbed at axe-point by Emma Watson, or fleeing cannibals, the characters mostly just sit around talking — and it’s really the dialogue that makes the film. For all the tongue-in-cheek humor and crude comments, the dynamics between the characters are surprisingly apt. Danny grates on James’s (and eventually everyone’s) nerves; James, Jonah, and Jay all compete for Seth’s best-friendship (he is, unsurprisingly, best-liked member of the group); Jay and Seth deal with the increasingly obvious fact that they are growing apart. Somehow, the characters manage to be both absurd caricatures and believable, real people, and it’s bizarrely compelling.
At the beginning of the film, as he stands in the airport, Seth is accosted by a reporter. “Seth Rogen!” the man crows, thrusting his camera into Seth’s face. “You always play, like, the same guy in every movie. When are you gonna do some real acting?” It’s a fair criticism to make; Seth and his usual roster of co-stars (sometimes referred to as the “Jew-Tang Clan”) aren’t known for their versatility. And in some ways, This Is The End is a response to that criticism: it’s the ultimate Jew-Tang Clan movie, with the actors literally playing themselves. There’s little “real acting” to be seen.
Do we care? It seems not. Maybe the reason we watch these Jew-Tang Clan movies isn’t to experience “real acting,” but to spend time with likable, familiar characters. And a little crossover into horror and sci-fi doesn’t hurt. This Is The End certainly isn’t the most sophisticated movie of the year, and there are points when it descends to a low level of humor that lost me a little (is it too gender-normative to call it “boy humor”? A lot of penis jokes, a lot of vomit). But it’s a fun ride, and they manage to squeeze in some self-aware comments on celebrity lifestyle and even raise a few existential, religious questions. For example: “Who f-cking saw that coming, that there actually is a God?”