Review: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s ‘This Is The End’ digs deep for smart laughs

There are few things more important to me than my friendships. In general, I consider myself a friendly person, and there are many people that I deal with who I would say I’ve got a pleasant but casual relationship with, and a few special people who I consider genuine pick-up-the-phone-anytime friends. They are hard-won, and even if I don’t get a chance to see all of them as often as I’d like, they are important to me.

One of the reasons I take those relationships so seriously is because I know how rare they are, and I know how uncommon new ones can be. The worst feeling for me is when things shift, when one friendship starts to crowd out another. It’s happened in my life, and it’s never something calculated or intentional. It’s just evolution, the way things happen, and it can hurt when it happens. “Frances Ha,” the latest film by Noah Baumbach, mines that material in a very smart way, and with a very different voice, so does “This Is The End.”

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have a storytelling voice that I like enormously. Both “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” are movies I enjoy top to bottom, and watching them navigate the offers and opportunities that have come to them, and even the projects that I think are less successful are choices that make perfect sense, and I think their approach is always recognizably theirs. That is not easy to do working inside the system, and it feels to me like they’ve been working their way up to “This Is The End,” a summation of everything they’ve done so far.

At first glance, the film looks like an inside joke that they somehow talked Sony into making, but that’s not really the film they’ve made. Yes, Seth Rogen stars as Seth Rogen, and Jay Baruchel stars as Jay Baruchel, and Jonah Hill and Danny McBride and Craig Robinson and James Franco all play themselves, and there is a big laundry list of celebrities playing themselves in supporting roles, and there are some jokes in this movie that are so inside that I’m surprised they made the final cut. What that does, though, is guarantee that the relationships in the film are real, even though these guys aren’t playing the real versions of themselves.

The reason this feels like a sort of wrap-up to an entire stage of all of these careers is because much of the humor relies on a knowledge of all of the ways these guys have overlapped in the past. Going all the way back to “Freaks and Geeks,” everything they’ve ever been in plays into this in terms of defining who they are to each other. Seth is the lynchpin here, the guy who is caught between friends, with Jay Baruchel representing his life in Canada, his younger days, the part of him that just wants to play videogames and smoke weed and hang out all day. Then there’s Franco and Jonah, his LA friends, the ones he works with, the ones who own houses and work constantly and who are his creative peers at this point. As the film opens, Jay is just arriving in town for a visit, and as always, he’s all set to stay with Seth. The two of them are getting along great until Seth suggests a trip to Franco’s for a housewarming party. Immediately, it’s obvious that Jay doesn’t want to go to an industry party. He’s not comfortable with it. He doesn’t like the people, and he doesn’t like Seth when he’s around them.

The Franco we meet here is slightly obsessed with Seth, with artwork in his house that suggests a deep and abiding love, and Jonah is this uber-sweet guy who is worried about the way Jay feels when he’s around them. Jonah tries to make Jay feel included, while Franco just wants Seth to be dazzled by his party and his house and his art and everything else. Over the course of the party, there is a barrage of jokes and appearances and short bits. Look for the “Superbad” reunion with Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse all sharing a scene, for example. It’s funny stuff, and, yes, there’s something of a wink to the idea of casting Michael Cera as a coked-up Rihanna-grabbing loud mouth piece of sex-crazed trash, just as many of the cameos play some sort of twist on who these people really are, but all of it is meant to sort of justify Jay’s position.

In the middle of the party, he takes a walk with Seth, and just as the film really starts to hit some emotional truths, the world ends. And when I say it ends, I mean things get straight up crazy. i don’t want to tip the true nature of what happens, particularly since part of what follows is the ongoing debate between the characters about what’s going on, but from the moment it begins, “This Is The End” reveals some genuinely serious thematic concerns lurking beneath that lunatic surface, and as things get awful, the film starts to test these characters and their… well, their character. As Craig Robinson puts it, “We just get paid to act like we’re hard… but we’re not! We’re soft! We’re soft as baby shit!” If the end of the world ever does roll around, I’d try to fall back on whatever survival skills I learned as a Boy Scout, and I would be shocked if I lasted a full week. Actors at a certain level of success live inside a self-made bubble, and part of the film’s concerns have to do with popping that bubble and seeing what these guys are really made of.

More than that, though, the film wrestles with what happens when you take stock of your life and you realize that you come up short as a person. If the whole world as judged and you found yourself in the “loser” column, what would that do to you as it sank in? How could you live with that? And once you learned it, would there be anything you could do about it? What makes “This Is The End” special is the way they grapple with some very real ideas while they still keep piling on the comedy. There are some amazing set pieces in the film, including an extended sequence involving Jonah Hill that may be the most wonderfully weird thing we’ll see in a theater this year, an introduction for Danny McBride that is bigger and better than Jay Gatsby’s intro in Baz Luhrmann’s film, a bit involving Emma Watson that grapples with one of the squirmiest conventions of the genre, and a third act that is so gleefully bananas that I can’t imagine a studio saying yes to it. This is one of those films that only gets made because someone is heavily cashing in on not just one track record but a whole fistful of them, and it feels to me like every one of these guys knows how special this one is. There’s a moment during the stretch of film where the guys are settling into the daily rhythm of life after the end of the world where they do something to entertain themselves, and while it’s a big joke about their careers, it’s also oddly touching, a reconnection to the simple pleasure of doing something not for money or because it’s a good career move or because of what it earns you, but simply because it makes your friends laugh. It is a way to forget the terrible things out there, if only for a moment, and there’s something very genuine and even beautiful about what could easily have been a moment of shameful self-indulgence. Since the film is ultimately about what we get from those key friendships in our lives and how we have to take care of them, the moment speaks volumes, and it serves to remind them as well as us that before these are collaborators or professionals or movie stars, these are friends.

For a movie that contains some insane violence, some crazy monsters, and more on-screen wang than I’ve seen from a studio movie in quite a while, “This Is The End” is also, improbably, one of the sweetest films of the summer, and it lands with a resonance I didn’t expect. On a technical level, the film feels very modestly budgeted, with just a few big moments where it looks like they wisely spent all their money. Brandon Trost’s photography sets a great tone and doesn’t really look like a studio comedy. The gore and the monsters are all top-notch, and genre fans shouldn’t worry about this being toothless. These guys obviously subscribe to the idea that you can find laughs in the extreme, and in the worst of who we are, but they also find heart among the horrible, and while they can certainly play the worst, it’s good to see that they also believe we are capable of the best. I can’t wait to see where all of these guys go from here, and I feel like when we look back at the long story of all of these performers, this is going to be a key part of that story.

“This Is The End” opens June 12, 2013.