Actor Jay Baruchel (Jay Baruchel) has just flown in to Los Angeles to hang out with his best friend and fellow actor Seth Rogen (Seth Rogen). After a quick trip to Carl's Jr., the two head to Rogen's apartment for a weekend of drinking, smoking, and 3D video games...until Seth remembers he's been invited to a Hollywood party hosted by James Franco (James Franco). Jay isn't really interested in schmoozing with Seth's newer, more famous friends, but Seth insists he won't abandon Jay in a sea of young, attractive movie stars. Not surprising: that promise is broken. More surprising: giant blue beams of light suck people up into the sky, a huge sinkhole leading to the center of the Earth opens up in Franco's front yard, and Seth and Jay find themselves holed up with Franco, Craig Robinson (Craig Robinson), Jonah Hill (Jonah Hill), and Danny McBride (Danny McBride) for what sounds like the end of the world.
Setting aside the subjectivity of comedy, This Is the End is a complicated critical problem. It's two things that appear to be mutually exclusive: it's got a lot of big laughs, and it's not a particularly great comedy. The term "shock value" is probably misleading, but long-time writers / first-time directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are definitely more amused by pure outrageousness than they are by setting up a structure for the comedy to flow out of. Even accepting a lark of a premise with a bunch of famous funny people playing themselves, the movie gives off an aggressively lazy vibe, throwing aside perfectly good story and character set-ups in favor of coasting on basic silliness and audience goodwill.
A set-up like "Apatow's crew faces the end of the world" is fine, but it needs a guiding force to develop the idea from a concept into an actual movie. This Is the End looks like it'll be built on Jay and Seth's crumbling friendship, but that story is abandoned for roughly an hour in favor of what are essentially sketches. Even when a plot point is stretched over several scenes, like their attempts to get water from Franco's bunker of a basement, the film lacks focus, with Rogen and Goldberg dropping in everything from a brief drug trip to a straight-up spoof of demon possession films. Again -- and I can't stress this enough -- there are plenty of good jokes, but the hilarity of a movie like their own Pineapple Express (referenced here) builds out of the the characters of Dale and Saul and the details of their relationship. Even if the audience isn't conscious of it, that groundwork makes the movie funnier, and This Is the End would greatly benefit from more of that kind of focus. Let me be clear, though: I'm not advocating for the sentimentality that Apatow himself has drifted toward, just arguing that weaving a comedy together from story threads that interact with one another is better than throwing jokes at the screen.
It also hurts that Rogen and Goldberg resort to easy targets when it comes to the people in the house. The extent of This Is the End's self-deprecation is that Franco's art can be kinda goofy, and that The Green Hornet sucked. It's "kid-gloves" material; absurd eccentricities, such as the gun from Flyboys being the only weapon in the house, are much funnier. Additionally, for a movie that (in a friendly, tongue-in-cheek sense) may have been made to give Baruchel a chance to shine alongside the rest of this comedy crew, he's mostly sidelined, except for the dramatic heavy lifting, reading from the Bible (even if it is tongue-in-cheek). Jonah Hill gets the best "character" in the whole movie, instructed by Seth to smother Jay with friendliness, but it would've been much more refreshing to see Hill swap roles with Danny McBride. McBride is an extremely funny actor, but he's become comedy's go-to asshole, and his role as the "villain" of This Is the End is a joke that's tired before he's even appeared on screen.
The film is populated by a massive guest roster of additional celebrities, yet almost none of them get anything funny to do. The only cameo player who really gets to sink their teeth in -- and ends up arguably being the funniest person in the movie -- is Michael Cera, playing a coked-out, relentlessly unlikable version of himself that simultaneously skewers his on-screen persona and plays to legions of people who decided they were sick of him. Everyone else, including Aziz Ansari, Rihanna, and Emma Watson, are basically straight players in additional routines by the main six guys. Rogen and Goldberg's direction is equally torn, unable to marry the small-scale house drama to the massive stuff happening outside -- a perfect summarization of the problems that hold This Is the End back. It's not that it isn't a good movie, it's just that it ought to be better.
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