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.