Every now and then, we get movies whose primary (and, in some cases, only) selling point is the number of celebrities featured in the movie being used solely on the basis of their celebrity. The first that comes to mind is 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World by Stanley Kramer. Nobody went to see that movie because of its story! They went to see all these famous people crammed into one LONG movie (193 minutes!) I mean, who would’ve thought you’d ever see Spencer Tracy and Sid Caesar and Ethel Merman and Buddy Hackett in the same movie?!
In 1981, stuntman extraordinaire-turned-director Hal Needham (and one of my childhood heroes; I can’t tell you how many times I watched Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit on Betamax when I was a young one) brought us The Cannonball Run. I didn’t know who Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr were when I first saw it, so I couldn’t appreciate the Rat Pack nostalgia. And I hadn’t been exposed to any of the work of the great Jackie Chan (and in his prime!) as of yet. But I definitely knew who Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise were! And in a movie with James Bond himself, ROGER MOORE (remember, I was very young and didn’t know better.) Needless to say, a few years later, I saw the sequel The Cannonball Run 2 and got one of my earliest tastes of entertainment letdown. It was probably the first time I uttered the phrase, “It wasn’t as good as the original.” A rite of cinematic passage for a young movie nerd.
In 1992, Robert Altman staged a most welcome comeback with The Player, which didn’t even bother having the celebrities even pretend to be characters and used them solely as commodities (and one of the many celebrities… Burt Reynolds!)
Now we get another ode to celebrity self-adulation, This Is the End, from writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This is one of the best because they take Altman one step further. Not only do they appear as themselves, most of them are playing up (or down) to their public personas and have a better sense of humor about themselves while doing it (I don’t remember anyone ever saying Burt Reynolds had a sense of humor about himself.)
And even though they’ve created a brilliantly raunchy and immature comedy, Rogen and Goldberg, by layering in our culture’s current fascination with the End of Days, manage to create real suspense in moments. It’s as if they took the movie Ghostbusters (some of the creatures in the third act look like more ominous versions of Gozer’s devil dogs) and, by not including a Peter Venkman-like character, who looked at everything, including the Apocalypse, with a jaundiced eye (and don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Bill Murray in that movie, so this is not intended as a criticism of him) they’re able to play the terror somewhat straight… to a point.
The main group in this movie (Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride) lack any sort of action-hero machismo; they are all just overgrown and pampered celebrity man-boys. They’re the type who are so narcissistic, they believe that millions are dying and the world is ending just so they can learn to grow as people. One of the real achievements of the actors in this movie is how they manage to retain our sympathies for them despite their pettiness.
Of the group, Jay Baruchel is really the star of the movie, which, again, was a really smart decision by Rogen and Goldberg. Baruchel is the only one who, even though he’s recognizable (one of those “You know, THAT guy!” actors like William Fichtner and Eddie Marsan, just to name a couple), doesn’t really have a public persona. So the movie gives him one. He’s the guy who was friends with Rogen before he went to Hollywood and became a huge star. And he’s the guy who, whenever he visits Hollywood, which is rarely, makes it a point to say how much he disdains the place and all of its phoniness. This may be who Baruchel really is in real life, but we don’t know that, so we just go with it.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD….
I liked how This Is the End approached the Rapture, a concept very specific to Christianity. Yeah, it has fun with it (this movie’s vision of the Afterlife… fabulous) but it doesn’t mock it. The “characters” truly believe that the only way to survive this event is through divine intervention, the ultimate Deus Ex Machina. You can try and wise-ass your way to Heaven, but only true sacrifice will get you there (and one character, who I won’t say but it’s the perfect choice, just before he achieves salvation, has to get in one last petty dig, and ends up suffering for it. And the way in which he is punished, well, if celebrity is just something to be consumed by the public, it’s quite the comeuppance.)
END OF SPOILERS. YOU CAN COME BACK NOW….
But don’t get me wrong, this movie is no Left Behind portrait of sinners just getting what they deserve. One of the characters gets possessed in a scene that references Rosemary’s Baby, but takes it to a place that Roman Polanski couldn’t back in 1968. There’s also a scene involving a decapitated head getting kicked around like a soccer ball that gives us the most inexplicable POV shot ever. Sure, it makes no sense, but I love that Rogen and Goldberg included it anyway.
I could go on and on like Chris Farley in that old Saturday Night Live bit where he mentions a scene in a movie and just says, “That was awesome.” This Is the End delivers surprise after surprise. Kudos to Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and company for delivering such a smart, over-the-top, end of the world horror comedy. This Is the End is one of the most joyous and entertaining movies of the year.Follow @filmbyfelix