This is the End: This apocalypse comedy from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg represents an apex for what started unexpectedly with Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks. For years, the profane-yet-sweet, improvisation-heavy comic stylings of Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and others were shepherded by distinctive directors like Apatow and David Gordon Green or more experienced occasional sponsors and benefactors like Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller. With This is the End, the bench has become so crowded that the movie appears to kinda-sorta make itself.
Of course, that’s not true: Rogen and writing partner Goldberg made This is the End. They wrote it, as they did Superbad and Pineapple Express, among others, and make a tandem directorial debut. But the movie has the distinct feeling of an in-universe project, the Avengers of male-friendship late-blooming coming-of-age comedies. It began as a short entitled Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, referring to Rogen and his less-famous (if still recognizable) Canadian buddy Jay Baruchel. It has been expanded to include James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, and the movie, in which every principle actor plays himself, implicitly comments on that expansion: these versions of Rogen and Baruchel are longtime buddies growing apart as Rogen parties in Hollywood with his new movie-star friends and Baruchel hangs back in their native Canada. When Baruchel visits for a weekend of weed, video games, and junk food, Rogen winds up carting him to a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Then something apocalyptic happens: the two best friends grow irritated and impatient with each other. Also, the world ends.
Pre-cataclysm, the party at Franco’s is a curtain call of Apatow rep-company members, plus some famous randoms thrown in for variety (and because none of these guys seem to be friends with any girls; more on that in a moment). When the dust settles, only Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, Robinson, and McBride remain—and only Baruchel seems willing to believe that they’ve just witnessed a Bible-style rapture. The rest of the movie alternates bottle-style minutiae (six forced roommates bicker about food, chores, and jerking off) with scorched-Earth mayhem, which gives This is the End an eclectic unpredictability. The actors, of course, all play with their off-screen images: Franco plays a prop-collecting flake, Rogen a regular if suggestible dude, and Hill, fresh off of his Moneyball Oscar nomination, attempts to conceal his preening self-regard with over-the-top sensitivity and concern. McBride, meanwhile, sticks to his past movie roles: he’s imagined as someone like the guys he plays, only (hilariously) worse.
Rogen and Goldberg have a gift for writing laugh lines that sound extemporaneous; doubtless some of these bits actually were improvised, but the point is not being able to tell which. Also, as writers, they enjoy exploring dynamics of male friendship: think of the lifelong best friends played by Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad, or the blossoming bond between drug dealer and customer in Pineapple Express. The Rogen/Baruchel relationship, by contrast, is less developed and more pat—possibly because The End has to accommodate a six-man ensemble plus a ton of cameos, or possibly because Baruchel, for all of his easy, menschy likability, doesn’t have Cera’s underrated range of characterization through behavioral cues (glimpsed briefly in playing a coke-addled fuckhead version of himself early on here). The emotion of the kids in Superbad drifting apart came organically; here, at times, a similar dynamic feels like a couple of experienced screenwriters working on the “heart” of the story.
Yet This Is The End feels more sincere than not, and with Apatow himself veering more serious and most studio comedies still playing it safe, its irreverence goes a long way; offhand, this is probably the flat-out funniest broad comedy in a year or more, and it finds time to wrestle with some moral dilemmas, too, about the meaning of goodness, especially in a social circle defined by degrees of celebrity, fame, and image. Really, all that’s missing is the long-absent female perspective. I get that these guys have male-bonding chemistry, and the stories of Knocked Up and Superbad required some degree of separation for their female roles (said roles are also way more important to those movies than Emma Watson’s brief appearance here, which sadly qualifies her as the picture’s female lead). But This is the End isn’t really another belated coming-of-age story, and doesn’t need a no-girls-allowed clubhouse; would it kill them to invite Anna Faris or Linda Cardellini or Elizabeth Banks or Ari Graynor to the party?