In “This Is the End,” a horror comedy about the apocalypse, a slap-happy bunch of funky comedy stars, including James Franco, play themselves before and after Hollywood burns. It’s a gross-out extravaganza, with comic heroes and antiheroes who are more like pathetic victims, effects that echo torture-streaked horror films as well as the Book of Revelations, and a generally debauched sensibility.
In short, it’s a bathroom-humor bacchanal that also proves to be a satisfying act of vicious group self-parody. Even if you’re not a starry-eyed fan of the comedian-writers and comic actors from the TV series and movies endlessly referenced in this film — “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” on the tube, “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” on the big screen — you may find what co-writer / directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have done with Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson sporadically hilarious. In this gleefully masturbatory frolic, they’re always pleasuring themselves — and surprisingly, they also pleasure the audience.
Actually, you may find it funnier if you’re not a fan of the “Judd Apatow Gang.” Rogen and Goldberg have taken their joint identity as an arrested-adolescent friendship group to nightmare-farce extremes. You can emphasize the word “joint” in the phrase “joint identity” — partly because they’re often smoking weed.
This is literally the stoner comedy from hell. With “This is the End,” we’ve gone from “Up in Smoke” to “Up in Flames.” Visions from the bleakest parts of the Bible break out while Franco is throwing a house-warming party in which almost everyone gets baked. The film mercilessly sends up guys who’ve never had to worry about practicalities. No one could be less prepared than this coddled crew for a fight to the finish against demons. When Baruchel calls for someone to toss him a knife, it inevitably lands with the blade in his thigh.
It’s also a bromance of Brobdingnagian proportions. Franco has a special thing for Rogen. Baruchel, who shares Canadian roots with Rogen, thinks he’s Rogen’s best friend — and looks askance at Rogen’s “new” friends. (Baruchel still lives in Montreal.) Robinson plays everyone’s best friend, and McBride is everyone’s bad dream of a friend — a flagrantly foul embodiment of unadulterated, uncontrollable id. He won’t play by house rules. He starts out with the worst eating and drinking habits imaginable, then goes terrifyingly downhill. And he makes an act that was uproarious yet private in “Portnoy’s Complaint” the basis for riotous public recitation.
The apocalypse tests their varying brands of buddyship in more ways than one. The film goes from the challenge, “Can these friendships hold up under pressure?” to the bigger question, “Are these really friendships or just extensions of self-love?” Happily, “This Is the End” never goes soft. Even when the stars practice last-minute feats of self-sacrifice in hopes of getting to heaven, it’s as if they’re cavorting in some phantasmagoric Bravo show, “The Real Jackholes of Hollywood.”
The movie is wildly erratic. Urine humor remains, at least for me, a theory. And there are flat-out disappointments. The party scene is so full of cameos, including Michael Cera as a coked-out sex fiend, that you expect more of them. Emma Watson moves from cameo to supporting player, at least for one sequence. She’s terrific, even cleansing, in her pure, cold fury; she provides a break from the terminal frat-house humor. The movie could have used more of her (or others like her). Speaking of duration, like all movie comedies these days, this one is 15 minutes too long.
The filmmaking itself is disarmingly amusing, hitting grace notes amid the grandiosity. In this movie’s pothead vision of Deluxe Hollywood, created on Louisiana soundstages, the first signs of apocalypse break out on a commercial street where a single, forlorn palm tree tips over. Disney’s “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia” influences the ultimate demon more than “Alien” does — though the Satan in “This Is the End” is endowed in ways Uncle Walt would never have permitted.
The bonhomie as well as the skill of the actors keeps you smiling. There is something infectious about being in the company of people having a good time even if you don’t share their sensibility. And they bring out the scat rhythms in scatology.
Franco throws himself into a funhouse-mirror version of himself: a poseur who can pontificate about a Subway sandwich as a work of art. Rogen manages to be semi-smart in perilously fuzzy ways — he defines “gluten” as anything bad for you, then blissfully pigs out at Carl’s Jr. Baruchel pulls off the dual function of being a surrogate for anyone who doesn’t find these guys amusing while being a different kind of clown himself, alternately insecure and smug. Hill plays himself as the kind of guy who makes “niceness” a goal because he really isn’t all that nice. And Robinson, through some kind of musical alchemy, makes good nature and fellow feeling risible as well as lovable.
Thanks to their group chemistry and Rogen’s instinctive evil genius, “This Is the End” turns effrontery into a contagious comic style — though at times it’s contagious like a swinish flu. In its peak moments, it’s as bold as “Borat.”
“THIS IS THE END” — Grade: B-plus; rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence; running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes