This is the End is a funny movie, much funnier than I expected, full of honest laughs (like real giggles, not smiles or snorts) and clever meta-fiction, where all the characters play joke versions of themselves, with fictionalization levels ranging from the slightly-heightened reality of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm to the outrageous against-type of Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar. But don’t worry, Seth Rogen still smokes weed, yo! There’s also sociopathic cokehead Michael Cera, pretentious James Franco, fruity Jonah Hill, misanthropic Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, whose characters can best be described as Danny McBridly and Craig Robinsonish, respectively. If judged only by the cumulative length and volume of laughs, This is the End is the funniest movie of the year. I’m not so sure comedy can be judged like a big dick contest, but we’ll get to that.
Comedy is so personal and weirdly subjective, which isn’t surprising when you think about it: a lot of us choose our friends and the people we date on the basis of a shared sense of humor, so evaluating comedy is such a sub-rational, intuitive process, that describing it is almost as elusive as explaining personal attraction. Almost like love at first sight, with a joke-driven comedy, you can usually tell within the first five minutes whether you’re going to like it or not. A really bad joke basically makes you think I could never be friends with someone who thought that was funny, and vice versa. It’s why bad comedy makes you angry in a way schmaltzy drama can’t. From the very first joke in The Hangover III I knew, this is going to be a long, painful movie, and it was. This is the End was basically the opposite experience. The setups offered just the right amount of foreplay, the timing was just “off” enough to maintain surprise, and the explanation felt natural – not too much, not too little, like a Goldilocks porridge of jizz jokes. When I say “it was on my wavelength,” it’s not just a nebulous figure of speech. It’s like I was picking up the signal at just the rate that they were sending out, like the vibrations of the universe and shit. This is my attempt to explain the sub-explainable: it was funny.
This is the End is at its best in the opening scenes, when we’re being introduced to all the characters. Seth Rogen picks up his less-famous Canadian high school buddy Jay Baruchel from the airport. Baruchel plays a sort of composite of himself and real-life Rogen high school pal and co writer/director Evan Goldberg (Baruchel and Rogen actually met in LA). They get back to Rogen’s strangely over-styled house, and instead of hanging out playing videogames like Jay wants, Seth drags him to a super LA party at James Franco’s house, “on the same street as Channing Tatum.” In addition to all the digs and parodies of all the characters’ real-life personas that I won’t spoil for you (Michael Cera’s persona outdoes even NPH in Harold and Kumar), there’s a deep truth to the way Jay Baruchel’s character tries and fails to relate to all the motor-mouthed extroverts around him. There’s a scene where he’s standing in the midst of a crowd looking confused as all the actors (and Rihanna) crowd around Craig Robinson’s keyboard for a communal sing along. The confused “who the hell are these people?” look on his face as everyone else sings without reservation illustrates the writer/performer dynamic beautifully. Any writer who’s spent time with the drama crowd can relate. They’re just so big and energetic, and you want to join in, but it’s exhausting.
They’re all at James Franco’s house when the ground opens up and the Hollywood Hills turn to ash as the Biblical rapture happens, and the props of his weird dicknose life are utilized to full comedic effect. I thought they hammered the gay thing a little harder than they needed to given the wealth of other James Franco weirdness to draw from, but I’m sure they could practically hear the voice of your average dude-bro wondering “Bro, but what about how he talks like a fag?” every time they left the gay stone unturned. But they do a good job handling the obvious jokes in a deft enough manner that they can please the eye-rollers while simultaneously slaking the thirst of those thirsty for gay jokes (like your mom). Still, nothing in This is the End beats Zach Galifianakis’ question to Franco on Between Two Ferns, “Out of all the projects you’ve been a part of, which one has made people roll their eyes the hardest?”
While it isn’t really what you’d call an action-comedy (more of a ball-busting comedy), the marriage of action and comedy that is there works better in This is the End than it did in Pineapple Express. Probably because, unlike David Gordon Green tends to do, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg never forget that even when they’re directing action sequences, the end goal is still to make you laugh. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that most of the jokes are based on five guys going stir crazy from being cooped up in a house together, rather than improv-y riffing shoehorned into what are supposed to be life-and-death situations, as in the nigh-unwatchable 30 Minutes or Less.
The one thing This is the End is missing is that feeling like it was something someone really had to get off their chest. That sense of it as a story someone has been dying to tell you for years. This is the End feels sort of like a feature-length Funny or Die sketch. It does an amazing job keeping the story from dragging even when you know essentially where it’s going to go, and keeping things consistently funny, but there’s still that sense of it as a sketch rather than a story.
I wasn’t expecting a life-changing story, but I do wish Rogen and Goldberg had invented their own idea of Heaven, Hell, God, Satan, the afterlife and the apocalypse rather than just cribbing straight from the Bible. I don’t think it’s too much to ask – some of the most amazing, inspiring depictions of the afterlife have been given to us by comedy movies. And maybe it’s just me, but I find literal depictions of Heaven incredibly depressing. They come off so patently unrealistic that I start to question the very logic of the concept of Heaven itself, and I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to be thinking about at the end of a comedy movie is my own mortality. It’s like eating a pot brownie that starts off with joy and giggles and ends with you curled up on the floor listening to the thumping of your own sped-up heartbeat in some hellishly introspective slow-motion nightmare.
Still, it was funny, and funny is enough.