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

MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 2

26 July 2010

The first weekend of MIFF was one of extremes, delivering what will be a highlight of my film-going year but also delivering a major lowlight that resulted in one of my rare walk-outs.

World's Greatest Dad

World's Greatest Dad

However, first I just want to mention that it is such a pity that more Australians won’t get to see World’s Greatest Dad in a cinema with an audience. It won’t be getting a general release and is instead coming out straight to DVD to be eventually lost in the comedy shelves of hire stores. It is a shame because World’s Greatest Dad is an excellent black comedy-drama that draws upon a very taboo subject to elicit both laughs and moments of poignancy. Robin Williams plays a classic sympathetic loser character and it’s probably the best thing he has done in at least a decade if not longer. World’s Greatest Dad certainly steers into some very edgy territory but it works as well as it does because Williams is so endearing and because the film never uses shock tactics despite having ample opportunity to do so. Comedy this brave is a rare thing and a lot funnier than the majority of the stuff that gets a general release.

My festival highlight so far, however, was the screening of Psycho on Saturday night with a live orchestra performing the score. Psycho is of course a great masterpiece but seeing it with the live music enhanced the experience tremendously. It was also great being in an audience of people, some of who clearly had never seen the film before, and witnessing their gasps and delighted shrieks of terror!

The low light was on Sunday morning with one of the films I was most looking forward to: Nikita Mikhalkov’s Exodus – Burnt by the Sun 2. I saw the original Burnt by the Sun in 1995 during the first MIFF I ever attended and it is a film I have revisited several times since so that it has become one of my all time favourites. I wasn’t expecting this sequel to capture the beauty, sincerity and moving mix of the personal and the political to the same extent but I was not expecting it to be so bloated, self-indulgent, trite and manipulative. While the original was a touching film about a family set against the background of the Stalinist purges, this new film is a second rate overblown World War II adventure. I’ve sat through worse films than Exodus but not ones that threaten to ruin my feelings towards a film that I cherish so much. Around about the halfway point, Exodus has a flashback scene that uses some of the footage from the original film, reminding me how much I still love it, and this resulted in a wave of depression that compelled me to leave the cinema before any more damage was done.

The Tree

The Tree

My Sunday was significantly redeemed by the French/Australian film The Tree: an enjoyable low key, slow burning film with fine performances from Charlotte Gainsbourg and the various young actors playing her children. The set-up it is not too dissimilar to The Boys Are Back in that it depicts the day-to-day life of a family living in rural Australia trying to cope with the death of one of the parents. The belief held by some family members, that the dead parent’s soul has entered the larger-than-life tree growing next to the family home, is explored gently without every slipping into full-blown Magical Realism. The Tree has a tranquil naturalism that is warm and sincere.

[EDIT 23/9/2010: Read a full review of The Tree]

Finally, while The Trotsky is not in the same league as World’s Greatest Dad it is nevertheless another enjoyable comedy that went places that mainstream comedy doesn’t. Jay Baruchel (whom I’m liking more and more in every film I see him in) plays a teenage boy convinced that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and seeks to unionise his new school. While patchy at points it contains lots of laughs, is more than a single joke film and ends up being quite a rousing film about overcoming apathy to achieve social change.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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