Film review – This Is the End (2013)

18 July 2013
This Is the End: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

On 7 May 2011 something apocalyptic happened in popular culture – Michael Bolton became really cool. The soft rock crooner teamed up with the comedy trio The Lonely Island to make a music video. The gag was that instead of Bolton providing the trio with a ‘big sexy hook’ for them to use on their hip hop track, he instead sang about how much he loved the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The resulting song ‘Jack Sparrow’ was funny on several levels, but most of all because Bolton was parodying his clean-cut and somewhat saccharine and dorky image. ‘Jack Sparrow’ became a shining example of a phenomenon from the past two decades where public figures can earn enormous street cred by mocking themselves. Even Mike Tyson now comes across as a loveable rogue when he playfully pretends to bite Neil Patrick Harris’s ear during the opening number of the 2013 Tony Awards.

The all star cast of the massively self-reflexive and self-aware end of the world film This Is the End are not doing anything especially new with the concept of playing derogatory versions of themselves. However, their self-mockery is remarkably savage and most importantly, it is very funny.

While some of the best contemporary examples of actors playing highly unflattering versions of themselves have come from the UK – especially some the projects that Ricky Gervais or Steve Coogan have been involved in – the recent trend seems to have begun in the USA in the early 1990s. The 1992 film The Player assembled a huge cast of famous actors to play versions of themselves in director Robert Altman’s witty and vicious satire of Hollywood. From 1992 to 1998 Garry Shandling was doing something similar with the television series The Larry Sanders Show, which directed its witty and vicious satire towards late night television. This Is the End is not reaching for a similarly biting expose on the entertainment industry, but it does use the techniques used in The Player and The Larry Sanders Show to mock celebrity and fame.

The first part of This Is the End features Seth Rogen (who also wrote and directed with long term creative collaborator Evan Goldberg) dragging reluctant friend from out-of-town Jay Baruchel to a large party that James Franco has thrown. At the party is a large ensemble of mostly comedic actors who have worked with Rogen, and Goldberg on various films, most notably Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008). Like in The Player, many of these performers appear incredibly briefly, even some to the extent that you may not have realised they were there if you didn’t read their name in the credits at the end of the film. For the most part the humour comes from seeing these familiar personalities all in the same place at once and the resulting blend of egos, hormones and emotions that would occur at any large party. Their brief appearances juxtapose nicely with the perception of actors being self-important, something the film explores more as it continues.

The film changes gear when Judgement Day occurs and most of the cast are wiped out. One of the film’s greatest gags is that not a single person at the celebrity-packed party gets taken up to heaven as part of the Rapture. This Is the End then becomes more like The Larry Sanders Show as it focuses on the details of the various performers to mock the way they are perceived. And The Larry Sanders Show is a fitting reference point as it was an early television series that Judd Apatow worked on before becoming a key part of the creative team behind Freaks and Greeks (1999-2000), which Rogen and Franco got their breaks on, and then creating Undeclared (2001-2002), which starred Baruchel and again featured Rogen.

One of the grounding character arcs in the film concerns the tension between Rogen and Baruchel now that Rogen has become a bigger and more recognisable star and has famous friends like Franco. Added in the mix is a bromance love triangle between Rogen and old friend Baruchel, and new friend Jonah Hill who is wonderfully insincere. The rivalry between Baruchel and Hill for Rogen’s affections, even while the world is coming to an end, plays out beautifully. Added to the mix is Danny McBride being selfish and immoral, and the physically imposing Craig Robinson who reminds everybody that they are just actors and therefore completely lacking all skills, resourcefulness and toughness to cope with what has happened.

As well as acknowledging resentments and rivalries that may well reflect elements of truth, none of the performers in This Is the End try to present likeable versions of themselves. Not only does the film joke about none of them being worthy for heaven, but it includes conversations about how overpaid and overvalued they are in society. They appear needy, deceitful, manipulative, cruel and pathetic. Conflict does not just result from fights over the dwindling food and water, but about masturbation etiquette. The obsession with dick jokes that many of these performers are known – and sometimes derided – for is milked to its full extent, not just to generate laughs but to infantilise them and reveal their anxieties about their gender and sexual identity. None of it is particularly sophisticated or complex, but it is funny.

And still, as the characters increasingly humiliate and degrade themselves and each other, they are completely endearing and a joy to spend time with. Like many contemporary comedies This Is the End could have reduced its running time for a snappier end product, but there are not too many bits that drag. The special effects to create the various calamities as described in the Book of Revelations are impressive. By representing the idea of the Biblical Apocalypse seriously, the horror aspects of the film enhance the comedic aspects very effectively. Like Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma, the depiction of Christian mythology is reasonably faithful to the source material, which helps with the film’s edginess and comedy. The end result is a highly entertaining film that rather than being a self indulgent romp for the performers, becomes a funny self-aware critique of their indulgences – along with several violent deaths, demonic monsters and dick jokes. There are lots of dick jokes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Moneyball (2011)

10 November 2011
Moneyball: Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

The extent to which a film about sporting statistics can be enthralling is best demonstrated during a series of high stake negotiations over the phone in Moneyball. The two main characters, Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are in their small office putting their controversial player trading strategy to work. As the financial underdogs of Major League Baseball in 2002, Beane and Brand have developed a radical new approach to compiling a team to compete with clubs who have bigger budgets and therefore stronger player buying power. Through careful player statistics scrutiny Beane and Brand went after overlooked players who would theoretically become a team capable of winning. For a film about the behind-the-scenes politics of baseball, it is therefore appropriate that a behind-the-scenes sequence is the most exciting moment. Beane and Brand juggle phone calls, negotiate on the run and communicate split decisions to each other while maintaining the illusion of calm conversation on the phone. It’s tense and exhilarating.

With Beane as the extrovert and Brand as the introvert, the pair are a likeable, underdogs odd couple taking on an unfair system. Like the players they controversially select, they are also both under appreciated and underachievers. While far more traditionally ‘heroic’ than the protagonists from The Social Network (written by Moneyball co-writer Aaron Sorkin), Beane and Brand change the rules of the game to suit themselves rather than follow the conventional approach. This attracts substantial criticism and condemnation, with critics of their system applying a disproportionate focus on their losses rather than triumphs.

The criticism that Beane and Brand receive reveals a broader trend in social discourse to discredit methodical and scientific approaches over intuition and common sense, or at least the myth of intuition and common-sense. Within the film the accusations of Beane being out of touch become increasingly defensive to expose just how threatened wealthy and powerful interests are when their dominance is challenged. And since one of the key ways the powerless can challenge the powerful is through methodical strategy and rational thought to expose the flaws in the system, that type of analytical thinking is what is attacked. By making the heroes the guys who use a scientific approach to challenge the status quo, Moneyball pleasingly goes against the Hollywood tendency of deriding intelligence.

Moneyball: Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Moneyball is a restrained drama with moments of unconventional excitement. As the film is predominantly from the perspective of Beane, very little actual baseball is shown since Beane was apparently superstitious about attending games. The games are mostly conveyed to the audience in the way they are conveyed to Beane: via brief sound bites on the radio, news reports and text messages from Brand. This keeps the attention on Beane and the execution of his and Brand’s strategy, rather than the typical sport film approach of focusing on the actual game. The film mostly avoids cliché with Beane and Brand’s relationship never going into bromance territory. Some sentiment does seep in during the scenes with Beane’s daughter, but there’s nothing overtly distracting.

A degree of grounding to the film is created through the inclusion of ‘dead time’. Such moments are usually edited out to keep the film zipping along, but Moneyball is full of small and short moments between main bits of dialogue and action to remind the audience of the almost banal and highly unglamorous nature of the machinations off the pitch. Impressively Moneyball manages to convey both a sense of everydayness to what it depicts while also demonstrating the excitement of Beane and Brand’s approach, which would go on to completely change the nature of professional baseball.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Funny People (2009)

12 September 2009
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

Judd Apatow has been writing, directing and producing most of the big comedies to have hit the big screen over the past five years. The guy knows humour and his previous two directorial efforts, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are two of the funniest films of recent years. Funny People is the third film that Apatow has directed, written and produced and it is a very self-reflexive look at the business of creating comedy. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wealthy comedy mega-star with a background in stand-up and a string of mediocre films to his name that somehow haven’t diluted his popularity. In other words, George is a version of Sandler (although a far more egotistical, unpleasant and chauvinistic version since by most accounts the real Adam Sandler is actually a very generous person). George is dying of a rare form of leukaemia, something that he only confides to his new assistant and joke writer Ira Wright (Apatow regular Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian. Through Ira’s suggestion George gets back in touch with his family and friends, which includes ex-fiancé Laura (Leslie Mann) who now has a family of her own.

The key to enjoying Funny People is to first accept that it is not a comedy but a drama about people who work in comedy. There are funny moments but for the most part Funny People reflects many of Robert Altman’s films with its combination of multiple cameos, improvised dialogue and cynicism about the industry of making people laugh. The characters are not typical Apatow characters either as they aren’t really that likeable. What made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up such enjoyable films is that despite all their arrested adolescent behaviour and flaws, the characters were all decent guys with good intentions. Not so with Funny People: George is rude, narcissistic and callous; Ira screws over his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill); and Leo and Ira’s other housemate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) are overly competitive about making it in the comedy world.

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

The first section of Funny People is actually hard going because the characters are so dislikeable. The endless cameos by real life comedians playing themselves never really successfully lighten the mood either although there is one very funny scene where Eminem and Ray Romano have an altercation. Funny People picks up significantly when it begins to focus on the dynamic between George and Laura, mainly because Leslie Mann is just so terrific as Laura. It is also during these scenes that Sandler really gets to demonstrate how good he can be as a dramatic actor. The presence of Eric Bana as Laura’s obnoxious Alpha-male husband also helps to liven up these scenes. Funny People is not as good as the other films directed by Apatow and it probably would have worked better if the fairly weighty material was in the hands of a more seasoned director. Nevertheless, this is a very good film providing that you are prepared for its long running time and you aren’t expecting it to be a laugh riot.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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