Friday, June 14, 2013

<i>This is the End</i>. But Is it Funny?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 1:05 PM

This is the End movie
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?

Man of Steel movie
Man of Steel: I can't decide whether the mixed-positive reviews for Zack Snyder's Superman redo represent vindication for the unfairly maligned and actually pretty solid Superman Returns, because the latter's critical notices were actually more enthusiastic, or frustrating confirmation of groupthink when this newer movie makes more money and will be deemed, as such, "at least better than Superman Returns," one of those movies people didn't really decide they all hated until four or five months later and/or until it disappointed financially. That said, Bryan Singer's 2006 film was really more companion piece to the original movie series (or the first half of it, anyway) than franchise-starter, so I understand the decision to go forward with a new version. I mean, franchising is annoying, but Warner Brothers must be kind of vexed that they haven't kept a Superman movie streak going past two installments. Since Superman IV dead-ended the earlier series in 1987, there have been seven Batman features and just two Supermen.

Though Snyder hasn't yet made a fully satisfying movie—not even his Dawn of the Dead remake, with its killer first 20 minutes and middling everything else—the David Goyer/Christopher Nolan brain trust that worked on the recent Batman trilogy should at least keep him from his worst tendencies, though it sounds like Goyer has more practical input here than Nolan. I'm not an expert in Superman comics, but I think the challenge in bringing him to the big screen has in part to do with villainy that matches up against a hero who is basically an all-powerful god, which explains why this sixth Superman movie is only the second not to include Lex Luthor (and even the fresher villain General Zod featured here previously appeared in Superman II). Michael Shannon, who plays Zod, is an expert at bringing out dark-souled humanity: take a look at the crooked cop he played in Premium Rush, who could've easily seemed either too chintzy or too megalomaniacal, but in Shannon's hands had the grasping, uneasy eccentricity of vintage Christopher Walken. Shannon as Zod and Amy Adams as Lois Lane are casting coups that trumps almost anything in Snyder's Watchmen, so I'm hopeful that Snyder will do better by his source material than with that interesting mixed bag of a movie.

The Bling Ring Sofia Coppola
The Bling Ring: Upstart distributor A24 has become the go-to house for putting the "art" in party film: they brought out Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers just a few months ago, and Sofia Coppola's latest, also about teen girls going bad, looks like an unintentional companion piece. Potential upside: a jolt of incident into the gorgeous but sometimes too-languid stylings of Ms. Coppola, plus Emma Watson (ready for This is the End double-feature parties), minus the smug art-installation sensibility of Korine. Potential downside: no Franco!

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