By Jacob Mertens.
I must be getting old. Three or four years ago, I would probably find This is the End a humorous apocalyptic romp not be taken too seriously, a worthy diversion of my time. Now, I laugh here and there and leave thinking “What do I take away from this film?” The answer is next to nothing, other than that comparing the concept of the holy trinity to Neapolitan ice cream is brilliant. And perhaps that I wish more comedy could find that balance between intelligence and unexpected eccentricity, much like Monty Python did so well in days of old. Today, comedies resort to sexual innuendos and crude sight gags to remain edgy, to appeal to the same jejune demographic that watched Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) and flipped over foul language and playful misunderstandings of necrophilia. Yes, the draw of the modern comedy has changed over the years, fewer jokes improve with thought, and intelligent banter is forsaken for the infantile glee of James Franco and Danny McBride having a shouting match over the proper etiquette of masturbation.
Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, This is the End features second-tier celebrities playing fictional versions of themselves amidst the biblical Armageddon. Michael Cera runs amok, obnoxiously high on cocain, and gets impaled by a fallen street lamp. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame wields an ax and steals water from James Franco’s barricaded domicile. Meanwhile, a small contingent of quasi-friendly comedic actors hole themselves away in Franco’s patchwork fortress of solitude: all souls forgotten during the rapture, including the seemingly good-natured film leads Seth Rogen and Jay Baruschel. The pair came up together as actors through the cult show Undeclared, while Rogen and Franco similarly shared screen time on the beloved and underseen Freaks and Geeks. In the film’s parallel universe, Baruschel resents Rogen’s new group of friends, who are spearheaded by a markedly pretentious Franco, and this petty dispute offers the only tangible storyline in the film.
Still, the absurd backdrop and self-referential jests do give filmgoers a fresh and inventive set-up—a set-up quickly wasted on comedic trends that should have run their course by now. Mind you, I do not say this out of some puritanical need for films to be wholesome, but as a viewer bored with male-centric lewdness overwhelming everything that could make a comedy unique. For instance, This is the End features an extended joke involving characters needing to drink their own urine to stay alive. If this were unmarked territory (no pun intended), then the joke would warrant its time. But the taboo has been covered before in recent memory, both in the early moments of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and, more effectively, in an improvised PSA for Fight Club (1999), so the humor feels toothless and immature.
This is the End does string together several solid gags, most notably with its “The Exorcism of Jonah Hill” segment, which works as a cross-reference between The Exorcist (1973) and the hellish rape scene from Rosemary’s Baby (1968). However, the sequence still lowers itself and trades in on base laughs. Reframing The Exorcist in a comedic setting might intrigue, but showing Jonah Hill being raped by a male demon will make adolescent boys giggle, and one priority is clearly more important than the other here. Of course, it would be silly to condemn this kind of humor, and I do not mean to do so. If the sight of a black demon penis has you in stitches, fine. For my part, I think it is a shame that with such clear intelligence behind This is the End‘s writing, so much effort has gone toward making a film that has been done many times over by now.
Beyond the consideration of individual moments, This is the End does not build to a real ending, nor does it fully commit to a sketch structure. Consequently, too much emphasis is placed on making the audience laugh through character interactions, and a strong female presence begins to feel decidedly absent. Strangely, Emma Watson is chased off almost immediately, while the rest of the film’s female cast fall into a gaping hell pit just beyond Franco’s lawn. Without a feminine foil, the remaining characters dwell as listless manchildren, with no reason to better themselves other than a self-serving need to receive retroactive salvation. In this way, a more complete story (with women for God’s sake) might have better served the film’s comedy—might have even offered some kind of meaningful commentary toward the proven existence of God. But Seth Rogen and company know their audience, they know what makes them laugh, and they have no interest in stretching themselves beyond that point.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.