Dying horribly on camera almost resembles a badge of honor in an early sequence of the apocalyptic comedy This Is the End. Catastrophe strikes James Franco's housewarming party, with a sinkhole on the scale of a Hellmouth opening up in the 127 Hours actor's front yard. Celebrities playing themselves, including some famous faces from "Parks and Recreation" perish in moments of hilariously violent, over-the-top slapstick.
This Is the End only includes and kills off talented famous people and offers no mean-spirited, calculated assaults on genuinely irritating celebrities, like your Charlie Sheens or Ann Coulters. For a film that envisions a Los Angeles-based Armageddon, This Is the End proves unexpectedly warm-hearted as well as uproariously funny.
The film almost literally qualifies as the be-all and end-all of contemporary "bro" comedies. It's not a Judd Apatow production, but many of his longtime protégés either command center stage or provide cameos, to the point that Franco's besieged modernist mansion emulates the party house of Seth Rogen and pals in Apatow's Knocked Up. Rogen co-directed This Is the End with Evan Goldberg, with whom he scripted Superbad, Pineapple Express, and The Green Hornet. Just when it seemed that Rogen & company's brand of pothead hijinks had expired, This Is the End provides a reminder of why you liked them in the first place.
The film opens with Rogen greeting Jay Baruchel at an airport and quickly reveals that the old friends have drifted apart now that Rogen lives in Hollywood and Baruchel maintains a hipster's contempt for the industry town. After an afternoon of Carl's Jr. hamburgers, joints, and video games, Rogen drags his friend to Franco's party, despite the fact that Baruchel feels like an outsider among the L.A. crowd. Franco maintains such a near-worshipful view of his Pineapple Express co-star that it's almost like he's trying to "woo" Rogen away from Baruchel, as if we're watching the unlikeliest of romantic triangles. There's some unspoken subtext that Baruchel, while undeniably talented and successful, isn't quite as talented and successful as the others. Just as the film reveals the faults in the Rogen/Baruchel friendship, all hell starts breaking loose. With sudden outbreaks of destruction, eerie blue lights, and unidentified marauders, This Is the End could be an intentionally funny remake of that lame 2010 monster movie Skyline. The survivors of Franco's party, including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, hole up in his home after barricading the door with skateboards and lousy paintings.
The most fun I've had at a film in 2013, This Is the End finds plenty of humor in the trope of pampered celebrities unable to cope with real-world demands. As Robinson moans, "We're actors! We pretend to be hard! We're soft as baby shit!" As days pass and the conditions in the outside world worsen, relationships deteriorate in the house. Instead of fiddling while Rome burns, they take ecstasy and dance to "Gangnam Style," but as their provisions run low, tempers flare. Uninvited guest McBride gives another of his signature takes on strutting masculine ignorance and exacerbates the situation.
A few funny women make appearances, including a hilarious set piece from Harry Potter's Emma Watson that amounts to an extended walk-on, but otherwise, it's an all-guy affair. The lack of ladies seems partly a comedic choice: if women were around, the guys would probably do a better job of keeping their shit together. But it also feels like an unspoken admission from Rogen and Goldberg that they don't know how to do justice to female characters in raucous comedy. They save their insights for the undercurrents of male friendships, with Rogen and Baruchel offering a variation of the teen buddies in Superbad, who love hanging out together even though they're drifting apart. The actors all provide excellent, self-parodying performances, mocking each other's flops, with Franco clearly relishing the chance to present himself as a pretentious twit.
This Is the End's plot sets up some enormous stakes, and you wonder whether Rogen and Goldberg are digging themselves into a narrative sinkhole. Instead, the film's third act comes up with a rather ingenious twist and resolution that delivers good jokes without getting upstaged by the pleasingly cheesy-looking special effects. More impressively, This Is the End chews on some big philosophical questions about what makes a good person, in the midst of gags about joints, ejaculate, and severed body parts. Rogen and Goldberg figure out how to present the end of the world as they know it, and still feel fine.