Thursday, October 31, 2013

This is the End

Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr
Running Time: 106 min.

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes it can be freeing for viewers to be given a break from the rigid constraints of what we've come to expect from comedies. To be filled with the feeling that literally anything can happen at anytime and what we're watching isn't dependent on a specific formula that's been tried before. This is the End provides that tantalizing proposition, as a group of talented, likable actors are given the opportunity to just cut loose and poke fun at their own celebrity by playing versions of "themselves." It's a golden idea from the minds of Superbad co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even if it looked more enticing on the page than it ends up being on screen. I kept wondering if maybe these guys setting just a few ground rules would have done the film some good, as it starts out promising until devolving into kind of a mess about midway through.

The admittedly inspired central conceit starts running on fumes after a while, with all the actors in on a joke that wears out it's welcome. And it's a shame because what starts so promisingly eventually amounts to a bunch of actors hanging out on set smoking weed and cursing at each other for almost two hours. What nearly rescues this are all these performers since it can't be overstated how big a fan of theirs I am, only making this disappointment sting just a bit more.

When actor Jay Baruchel arrives in L.A. to meet up with his old friend Seth Rogen, he sees it as an opportunity to get high, eat junk food and play video games. But Rogen has other plans, dragging his unwilling and visibly uncomfortable pal to James Franco's debaucherous housewarming party, which includes celebrity attendees such as Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, David Krumholtz and Martin Starr. But when Baruchel goes out for cigarettes with Rogen, the two discover mass chaos on the streets, with explosions, fire, and a strange blue light shooting pedestrians up into the sky. It isn't long after they return that a massive crack opens in the earth, swallowing most of Franco's famous partygoers while leaving Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Hill and Robinson hauled up in his house hoarding supplies and waiting for help. Franco also has an uninvited houseguest in Danny McBride, whose belligerent behavior and glutenous consumption of food and drink is making survival extremely difficult. As tempers flare and tensions escalate at the Franco compound, Jay's bold prediction that the biblical Apocalypse is upon them is looking more more believable by the second.

To call a movie like this "self-indulgent" is not only beside the point, but possibly a high compliment. We wouldn't expect anything else from these guys and would worry if they didn't take every opportunity to lampoon their own images with tongues planted firmly in cheek. That's by far the film's strongest aspect and it's made very clear within the opening minutes with Michael Cera's extended cameo a self-absorbed, drug-addicted celebrity man whore who heinous acts include blinding Christopher Mintz-Plasse with cocaine and sexually harassing Rihanna, The movie never quite repeats it's magic once he departs (in the most spectacularly hilarious way possible). All the dirty, filthy comedy with Cera works because it's truly shocking to see him specifically act like a spoiled Hollywood brat and he just throws himself into it with reckless abandon. And of course there's his unbelievably colorful windbreaker, which should really have its own movie.

When they try to repeat much of Cera's over-the-top hijinx with everyone else it doesn't work as well. We completely expect Rogen, Franco, Hill, McBride, and Robinson to do the craziest things possible, but what's most surprising is just how much of a slog the middle portion of the picture is, with the six of men under lockdown in Franco's house hurling insults at each other and doing drugs for almost an hour straight.  While an "end of the world" scenario with these actors should be exciting, the premise actually turns out to be creatively limiting, almost as if Rogen and Goldberg didn't know what to do once the party stopped and they had to switch gears into Apocalyptic action-comedy. There's this nagging feeling that a real-time movie that revolved entirely around this party would probably be superior to much of what follows. 

That's not say this still doesn't have its moments, most of them coming in smaller doses when the actors spoof their own reputations. Franco is the pretentious "artiste," with his living room doubling as a gallery adorned with Freaks and Geeks paintings and a basement containing a Spider-Man 3 cardboard standee and an Harvey Milk sign. And that's not even mentioning what happens with his prized pistol from Flyboys. Really clever. Jonah Hill is re-imagined as disinengenous and strangely effeminate, competing with Baruchel for Rogen's attention. Craig Robinson's "Mr. Robinson" hand towel never leaves his shoulder while Danny McBride is, well, Danny McBride. Or more accurately, he's Kenny Powers. He also appears in an epic breakfast montage sure to make Walt Jr. and Ron Swanson jealous, as well as a homemade Pineapple Express sequel trailer with Rogen and Franco you almost wish were real. While it's hard to categorize these as "performances," they really are in every sense. Even that's a joke in itself when in one of the film's first scenes Rogen is harassed at the airport by a papparazzo asking why he always plays the same role over and over. That these guys all definitely seem in on it and clearly don't take themselves seriously in the slightest is at the crux of all the best scenes.

They have the right lead in Baruchel, who's great as a socially awkward hipster struggling to hang on to his friendship with Rogen despite his disdain for L.A. and everyone in it. It was smart making him the only semi-normal character in the movie, giving the audience an eyes and ears, not to mention someone really likable to root for. That everyone now gets to see just how good the former Undeclared star is may end up being this movie's biggest contribution. There's definitely a lack of female presence, with the exception of Emma Watson's extended cameo that puts her at the center of a joke that really isn't funny. While I can't say it directly contradicts with the rest of the film's tone, something about it does seem especially mean and tone-deaf. While it's arguable this joke could have even worked under any circumstances, they're undeniably way off with the execution, revolving the film's cruelest joke around an actress that whose presence instantly makes the situation seem horrifyingly uncomfortable rather than comical.

Very little needs to be said about the apocalyptic aspect of the story because if it were excised entirely I'm not sure you'd be left with something that's all that different. The special effects strike the right balance in that they're cheap enough looking to be funny, yet impressive enough looking to pass off as disaster movie worthy. But the actual apocalypse is the weak link in this, taking a backseat to all the meta references and existing primarily as the creative catalyst to strengthen Rogen and Baruchel's bromance. So by those standards it does undeniably succeed, especially at the finish line.

If I could pick a project from these actors that this most reminds me of in terms of tone it would probably be the Franco-McBride starring lowbrow comedy Your Highness, only with the Apocalypse standing in for a medievel adventure. It's ironic they justifiably trash that during this, and while actually comparing the two may be stretching it, there are definite similarities in terms of the style of humor. This is the End is much smarter and funnier, but gets most of its leverage from extremely likable actors just having a blast together, even as the audience is sometimes left out in the cold.                   

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