This Is The End (2013) – Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen

Seth Rogen;Jay Baruchel;Jonah Hill

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?”

The Bling Ring (2013) – Sofia Coppola

The-Bling-Ring-640x376It’s a pity that Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers came out in the same year: it’s difficult not to compare the two, and the comparison does The Bling Ring no favors.  Based on actual events, the film follows a group of teenagers in their repeated robberies of the homes of many Hollywood stars, including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge.  Like Korine’s film, The Bling Ring is a beautifully shot account of adolescent recklessness, with a palate of candy pinks and neon yellows — but uneven performances and a flat storyline leave it ultimately lacking in resonance.

Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) serves as our lens character, arriving as a new student at Indian Hills High School.  After being gawked at and harassed (inexplicably — is this really what high school is like?) by his fellow students, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), and they quickly become friends. It is Rebecca that encourages Marc to join her in stealing from unlocked cars, friends’ homes, and eventually the homes of celebrities.  Rebecca is obsessed with the celebrity lifestyle.  She tells Marc that she plans to go to the Fashion Institute of Design — “it’s where all the Hills girls went.”   There are a couple truly gorgeous shots of her staring into the mirror as she applies Paris Hilton’s lipstick or Lindsay Lohan’s perfume, entranced by her own reflection.

Marc is likable from the moment he opens his mouth.  He’s reminiscent of so many boys you knew in high school — self-conscious, a little naïve, good-natured and earnest, but troubled.  It’s completely believable that he would get pulled into Rebecca’s kleptomania, motivated by loneliness and a desire to be glamorous or special.  Chang’s performance, on the other hand, is as flat as Broussard’s is nuanced.  Her appeal lies exclusively in her physical beauty; otherwise she is cool, her lines stilted, her voice monotone.  Rebecca is supposed to be the mastermind behind these burglaries — the ringleader — and yet she has no charisma whatsoever.

Rebecca and Marc are soon joined by some of Rebecca’s friends: Chloe (Claire Julien), Nicki (Emma Watson), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Watson gives a particularly fine performance as Nicki: skinny, strung-out, and narcissistic, telling the press that she “might want to lead a country someday, for all I know.”  The five of them fall into the habit of regularly stealing from celebrities, in scenes that are breathtaking in their decadence but tediously formulaic, with a lot of giggling, shrieking, and preening until Marc says, “Guys, we gotta get out of here” and they scamper away.

What this film does most effectively is take a snapshot of the absurdity of Hollywood life.  Sam and Nicki are home-schooled by Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann) in the religious-science philosophy of the Agape Church, an education that involves popping Adderalls and making inspiration boards about Angelina Jolie.  All five of the teenagers are constantly partying, comparing clothes, dropping names, checking their phones. The teenagers’ materialism is striking, and so is the materialism of the robbed celebrities (Marc, Rebecca, & co. are able to rob Paris Hilton five times before she notices that anything is missing).

But Coppola hints that this shallowness and materialism is more widespread than we think.  Marc receives 800 Facebook friend requests after his arrest, suggesting to him that “America has a sick fascination with a Bonnie and Clyde type of thing.”  How much can we remove ourselves from these teenagers’ outlandish actions?  Aren’t we all similarly materialistic and shallow, even just by virtue of watching this film and indulging in a spectacle of decadent materialism?

These ideas are never fully fleshed out.  Coppola focuses instead on the robbery scenes, which quickly grow old, while the more interesting aspects of the story — the characters and their backgrounds, the presence of social media in their crimes, the general materialism of the millennial generation — we merely get glimpses of. Perhaps the reason The Bling Ring is so disappointing is that it’s so close to being a fabulous movie.  Unfortunately, it ends up being more like a fabulous fashion show.