There's a longstanding tradition of actors playing comical variations on themselves, like Jack Benny making a career of playing a miserly "Jack Benny"on radio and television. In postmodern media, it's become hipper than ever to pull this trick, whether you're David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show or Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now the idea has been taken to its logical extreme, with a gaggle of comedic actors playing themselves in an apocalyptic horror comedy, This Is the End.
Written and first-time-directed by the team of Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (who previously penned Superbad, The Green Hornet and Pineapple Express), This Is the End proceeds from the amusing premise of elite celebrities brought down to size by Judgment Day. Buddies Seth Rogen (Seth Rogen) and Jay Baruchel (Jay Baruchel) get together to hang out, go to a party hosted by James Franco (James Franco), and run into more famous friends, including Jonah Hill (Jonah Hill), Craig Robinson (Craig Robinson), and Danny McBride (Danny McBride). When all hellfire on earth, sinkholes, and roaming demonic monsters break loose, the stars board up Franco's compound and ineptly attempt to survive.
Unfortunately, this type of thing has already been diluted by late-show viral videos and Funny or Die, which commonly whip up "wild and crazy" adventures for celebrities playing themselves. Indeed, This Is the End at times feels like a web clip that doesn't know when to quit—which is understandable as the credits note that the film is based on the trailer-styled web short "Jay and Seth Vs. the Apocalypse."
The main difference—and it's not to be underestimated—is that This Is the End is profane in the extreme, an R-rated stoner comedy gleefully grafted onto a "splatstick" horror picture, the next evolutionary step for the in-bred hipster comedy world that thrilled to Shaun of the Dead. (Horror fans will note the stamp of approval that is the participation of revered special makeup artists Greg Nicotero & Howard Berger.) It's also unabashedly a boy's club. Emma Watson's glorified cameo that, though employed to mock male attitudes, still reduces her to little more than the object of a rape joke.
This Is the End never feels as fresh or heartfelt as Shaun of the Dead, but not for lack of trying. There's a certain creative ambition in the notion of doing something like The Trigger Effect or Night of the Living Dead with a cast entirely made up of comedy stars poking fun at their own base human natures, monstrously exacerbated by privilege. Franco plays himself as a sexually ambiguous elitist, McBride plays himself as if he's even more of a terror than the character he plays on HBO's Eastbound & Down, and so on.
Giving some shape to what's otherwise a parade of sketches (like parodies of reality TV, The Exorcist, and even Pineapple Express) and hit-and-miss gags, Rogen and Goldberg suppose that there is one possible "Rapturous" salvation from the End of Days: arriving at a genuine, pure goodness of character, the lack of which is keeping them trapped in a Sartrean hell of other showbiz people. The film's ending confirms that the whole enterprise has been an expensive lark, made because the filmmakers can. Those who find the stars or the premise inherently insufferable obviously should not apply, but fans of the actors, profane comedy, and outrageous horror will have a grand old time.