For fans of the stars, the fun of the opening scenes is watching them riff on the trappings of fame and particularly the personae that have been created for them in their movies and in the press.
This Is the End is not for everyone. For some, it will be like attending the best Hollywood party imaginable; for others, it will feel like sheltering-in-place during a disaster with unpleasant coworkers. It depends on how much you like the actors, all playing themselves, who will be your companions for two hours of the apocalypse.
The movie starts with Seth Rogen picking up his friend Jay Baruchel at LAX. Baruchel isn't crazy about Los Angeles, but Rogen convinces him to go to a party at James Franco’s house. Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson are also there. Even those who don’t recognize the names will probably be familiar with the faces of these actors, all products of the Apatowian school of American comedy.
For fans, the fun of the opening scenes is watching them riff on the trappings of fame and particularly the personae that have been created for them in their movies and in the press. Comedians -- in particular male comedians -- who play thinly veiled versions of themselves is nothing new, and it seems to be a trend over the last decade. Larry David and Louis C.K. play themselves on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie, because their best comedy stems from their own insecurities. Neil Patrick Harris and Matt LeBlanc have created barely recognizable dopplegangers to reboot flagging careers. And occasionally, an actor plainly plays himself, like Bill Murray in Zombieland, just to the steal the show.
Still, it is hard to think of another instance where so many currently successful actors play themselves for the sake of taking pot shots at themselves and their friends.
Some performers at Franco’s party, like Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, and Mindy Kaling, serve as background. Other cameos pack more punch. Michael Cera is particularly offensive as a scumbag version of the Michael Cera we've come to expect. And Emma Watson, in an all-too-brief appearance, is reincarnated as an ax-wielding warrior, a self that recalls Hermione, but also suggests she's grown up, both with and apart from Emma Watson.
These performances punctuate and sometimes rescue the rest of This Is the End, which shifts abruptly after the first 10 minutes from a raunchy satire of Hollywood, lovingly told by those who live in it, to a more generic horror-comedy about the end of the world. This apocalypse is nothing short of Biblical. Assorted hellmouths open up and swallow people whole, while streets and structures are pelted by fire and brimstone, and demon beasts of various shapes and sizes roam the earth. When the apparently righteous are pulled up to heaven via blue shafts of light, the gimmick of the actors playing themselves is lost amid the special effects. With the addition of Danny McBride, who is passed out in a bathtub throughout the party, all the guys begin to look more like characters.
As this gimmick gives way to the conventional survival narrative, the movie starts to look like a lot of other movies, satires of other movies included. Tweaking tropes familiar from Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, This is the End comes dangerously close to being a Scary Movie knock-off. What saves it from being only a series of sketches are the twin themes of friendship and redemption, also familiar. The movie conjures some surprising emotional complexity in the men’s realizations that their behavior before the end leads to being left behind, and that ultimately, yes, they control their own destinies. That they come up with some frank commentary on religion may not be unexpected, but it might also offend some viewers.
All this said, no one is going to see This Is the End for an exegesis on the meaning of Revelations. Playing themselves sometimes seems to free these actors from the need to act, so they might unleash the sometimes cruel honesty that is the hallmark of great comedians. It's the moments between the story about global devastation that are funniest and most surprising. Many of the sidebar exchanges evoke so much and such sustained laughter that it's hard to hear ensuing punchlines. Even when the plot turns distracting, the jokes remain the point in this end.