Judd Apatow‘s past collaborators have exceeded him. Left to make a movie without his direct oversight, stars Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson have made a film with the influence of Apatow’s past work, but none of his recent weaknesses. That’s not to say that these actors are only indebted to Apatow or that their comic talent came from working with the successful writer/director/producer. But they’ve all worked with him in the past, and their latest effort, guided by a script and direction from Rogen and Evan Goldberg, leaves behind comic one-upmanship and endless riffing to provide a balanced comic dynamic that’s able to navigate a loose plot to big laughs.
The cast plays comic versions of themselves, and their story begins with Jay* flying in from Canada to visit Seth in Los Angeles. Jay is reluctant to hang with Seth’s L.A. friends, but gets dragged to a party at James’ new house. At a party filled with familiar comedy faces like Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and more, the apocalypse strikes with a giant sinkhole forming on James’ front lawn and the Hollywood Hills ablaze. After most of the guests fall into the fiery chasm, only James, Jay, Seth, Jonah, Craig, and Danny are left in the house. They discover that the rest of the world is experiencing the same phenomenon, and from there, it’s a matter of survival not only in trying to find food and water, but also in keeping themselves amused and tolerating each other.
Admittedly, it’s tough to review comedies because no one wants to give away the specific jokes. In broad terms, This Is the End quickly establishes its tone as a goofy comedy rather than going towards a particular sub-genre like a stoner flick, self-parody, constant improv, or something dark and twisted. These elements pop up throughout, but they don’t dominate the picture. Rogen and Goldberg manage to find the right balance where it’s more about making sure the actors have the space to play off each other rather than be constricted by a particular set of comic guidelines. The apocalypse is the pretext and gives the plot an arc, but This Is the End functions more like a series of vignettes based on the characters’ ineptness.
The movie is built more on relationships rather than types. There is definitely some clear characterization when it comes to the rude-and-crude Danny and the emotionally mushy Jonah, and these types work out great. But the film is more centered on how James dislikes Danny, how Jonah is trying to win over Jay, how James idolizes Seth, Craig and Jay trying to be better people, and most importantly, the friendship between Jay and Seth (which isn’t too surprising since the feature is based on the short film, “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse”).
It’s a savvy move since This Is the End could have easily fallen into the trap of celebrities lampooning their public personas. It’s fine in short doses like watching Cera steal the show as he rails against his past typecasting, but this approach couldn’t sustain a 105-minute runtime. Instead, the stars do what they’d probably like to do on a regular basis: just be seen as regular people. This Is the End doesn’t ignore their fame, and occasionally pokes fun at it, but it’s not the central point of the movie. The film even begins with Seth getting approached in the airport and asked to do his distinctive laugh as if he were a performing monkey.
By skillfully walking the line between their public personas and the ones constructed for this movie, the cast can focus on what it does best, which is making people laugh in any way possible. Again, I won’t spoil any jokes, and you should go in as cold as possible, but the movie holds up on repeat viewings with plenty of moments that will have you doubled-over in laughter. It’s not always full-tilt, but at the very least, it will keep you smiling from ear to ear. There are so many places where This Is the End could have fallen into the abyss, but it happily weathers the apocalypse by never constraining the kind of comedy it will employ, but showing enough restraint to make sure that we’re never hoping an endless scene will be wiped from the face of the Earth.
*To provide a distinction, when I refer to a character, I’m using the first name, and when I’m referring to an actor and his performance, I’m using the last name.