Actors have long fascinated America because their lives seem so foreign, mysterious in the convoluted. When one man adopts so many different roles, what sort of personal life emerges?
Seth Rogen, however, fascinates in a different way. By playing what is essentially the same character in every film – brutally witty, generally kind and casually stoned – he has created a unique niche in the world of American cinema. We watch his movies because, to some extent, we know him.
This strange relationship between the audience and director of "This Is the End" makes it both brilliantly honest and disappointingly narcissistic; in a movie where each actor plays himself, weak scenes continually depict a group of friends goofing around to see who can push the limit furthest. The result is subpar.
The film's premise is simple; Rogen and his best friend from Canada, Jay Baruchel, go to a party at James Franco's house and the apocalypse strikes during the night. After a giant sinkhole opens up and beams of blue light send some people ascending slowly to the skies, Rogen and Co. hole up in Franco's fortress.
The mirth inherent in playing yourself shines through in the near-constant riffs on each other's media personas.
Jonah Hill, at one point praying to a God he barely believes in, begins by saying "It's me, Jonah Hill from 'Moneyball'" in a blatant stab at his inflated head after receiving an Academy Award nomination from the film. Franco delights in mocking the neo-intellectual persona that he's created, fighting to preserve his art and saving all his favorite props. And perhaps the most entertaining gags come from Michael Cera, the generally soft-spoken dork who became Juno's baby daddy and has a penchant for playing the sucker. In "This is the End," Cera ditches the nice guy persona for that of a cocaine addict with raunchy tendencies and no shame. It's a refreshing departure that has the audience in stitches up until Cera's last laugh.
The jokes on each other are as pleasurable for the audience as they were for the actors making them because, to some extent, we feel like we know this gang. It's the Judd Apatow crew, our buddies from L.A. It's not so hard to envision a party with them going exactly like described in the movie.
The narcissism emerges, then, not from the fact that they are playing themselves but out of the apparent unwillingness to edit out their most sordid descents into comedy. Too many times, a situation stretches on too long, as it does when Danny McBride and Franco have an extended shouting match over who gets to ejaculate on what. The idea of these brilliant comedic actors all surviving the end of the world is hilarious, but the reality of watching their flattest jokes for scene after scene grew stale quite quickly.
The disappointment is only augmented by campy special effects, surely intended to make the end of the world feel as much like a joke as the actors seem to think it is. With some unnecessary CGI anatomy and PhotoBooth-esque flames, even Satan himself seems like an exaggeration that could have used some heavy-handed editing.
To be fair, Rogen and his crew provide plenty of memorable insights into the hilarity of reality, even at the end of the world. A debate on what exactly gluten is and the immediacy with which the gang begins taping video confessionals are exactly the kinds of things we think actors would do. Even doubts about religion are relatable, if not exactly reverent.
The movie thrills when realistically making fun of itself; it fails only its delivery, when the talented friends refuse to edit out their inanity and in so doing, make fun of their audience.