When they're not performing, actors are basically worthless human beings. Or so goes the central joke in This Is the End, and it turns out that you can make a really funny movie based almost entirely on that joke. Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and based on their short Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse, this comedy imagines what would happen if a bunch of young, famous L.A. buddies had to contend with the Rapture. Few of us would probably have the survival skills to cope with fearsome demons and flaming fireballs. But at least we're not as hopelessly self-involved and spoiled as these bozos.
Like Being John Malkovich or Cold Souls, This Is the End purports to feature actors playing themselves. As the movie opens, Jay Baruchel has just arrived in Los Angeles to hang out with Rogen, who was one of his best friends when they were both growing up in Canada. But now that Rogen has become a Hollywood success and lives in L.A., they spend less time together due to Baruchel's vivid dislike of the place. It may also be because of the fact that Rogen's new group of buddies—like James Franco, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera—don't really make Baruchel feel all that welcome, a point pounded home when he and Rogen go to a rager at Franco's house and everybody gives Baruchel the cold shoulder.
Hurt feelings become the least of everyone's worries, though, once massive sinkholes start popping up everywhere and fire begins raining down from the sky. At first Rogen's gang isn't sure what's going on, but once the initial carnage subsides and most of Franco's guests are killed—rest in peace, Rihanna and Aziz Ansari—the few survivors (Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride) begin wondering if maybe this is the apocalypse, a dire event that their smart-ass sensibilities can't quite fathom.
Taking a page from Shaun of the Dead, This Is the End balances humor, horror, and sentiment. The movie chases laughs but also spends some time developing the relationship between Rogen and Baruchel, who begin to question whether they've grown too far apart. But that's not what makes this movie any good. This Is the End really works when it's just busting out jokes, and the best of the bunch get their juice from showing exactly how incompetent movie stars would be in a crisis. And not just any movie stars: We're talking immature, pot-loving bros who aren't exactly known for their incredible physiques or stunning intellects.
Rogen and Goldberg twist and contort that conceit every which way they can think of, and it's a treat to discover just how malleable it really is. Part of the film's charm is that the stars—who know each other and have been in each other's projects over the years—are acting the way we'd sorta assume they do in their real lives. Franco is totally full of himself, McBride is a rude chronic masturbator, and Robinson is all deadpan frustration. The actors are all pretty great sports, making fun of themselves without giving off an air of how pleased they are with satirizing their image. This is especially true of Hill, who seems to understand that people are getting tired of his "serious artist" shtick, and nicely parodies it, playing himself as an utterly disingenuous poseur who thinks he's just slightly better than his peers but tries to act like he's not. They're not playing themselves so much as they are playing their personas, but their personas are funny, particularly when they're trapped inside Franco's house and all hell is breaking loose outside.
Speaking of the Rapture, This Is the End makes something of that, too. The filmmakers put in just enough scary moments so that we don't relax too much into the comedy. (There's always an edge to the movie.) But even the end of the world just creates more chances to riff. There's an extended homage to The Exorcist that may be obvious but turns out to be really damn funny anyway. (And if it's too on-the-nose for you, maybe you can impress your friends by spotting the Rosemary's Baby nod that happens elsewhere.) It's not all laughs, though. For an anarchic, R-rated comedy—one that gets more intense and yet somehow more hilarious as it rolls along—This Is the End exudes a kindness and generosity that's quite touching. The movie may be hard on its characters' many flaws, but it doesn't see its stars as somehow better or cooler than "normal people." They're just like everybody else, the movie seems to argue, albeit a bit wealthier and probably a little dumber. Even the film's comedic targets—the Backstreet Boys, Emma Watson—are objects of affection. The results are sweet without getting sappy. No one probably needs a feel-good, foul-mouthed, meta-comedy about the end of the world. But it's really nice to have one.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch