I’m in a tight spot. I didn’t find “This is the End,” the new comedy made by Team Apatow without Judd Apatow’s involvement (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed and produced), to be particularly funny. But most people I know and respect—and the general public, if the “B+” CinemaScore is any indication—think that the movie is hysterical. That indicates it achieved its goal, and given I don’t find the way it achieved its goal in any way offensive—the humor is pretty lewd, but it’s all in good fun—I can’t exactly argue that the movie is ineffective or objectionable. I could dissect every single joke and tell you why I didn’t laugh at most of them, but that would be spoiling the experience for those who haven’t seen the movie and exuding a pompous “I know better than you”-mentality toward those who enjoyed it. So I’ll be general and personal, acknowledging the relative futility of my criticism in this instance.
The primary thing that didn’t work for me about “This is the End” is what I perceive as an inconsistency of vision for its characters. Many reviews have said that the actors all “play themselves,” but that’s not accurate, unless the fact that they all go by their real-life names constitutes “playing themselves.” My impression is that Rogen and Jay Baruchel play versions of who they are off camera, James Franco plays a parody of who the media portrays him as (his own abstract artwork hangs on the walls of his home), Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play outlandish cartoons designed to make celebrities look as moronic as possible, and Danny McBride plays the same character he plays in every other movie. Craig Robinson is mostly nondescript, aside from the way he hangs a towel emblazoned with his name over his shoulder. Thus, “This is the End” is never able to assert what kind of comedy it wants to be, because each character belongs to a different kind of comedy (I constantly wondered whether I was watching a farce, a satire, or neither). Sure, there are a few winning moments—Cera’s coke-addled maniac is a delight—but without a clear objective, the humor feels scattershot, unstructured.
In fact, there’s an astoundingly limited amount of self-aware comedy in “This is the End” for a movie that’s centered on its characters’ celebrity-status. The strongest bits are the ones that do reference the actors’ prior work—an attempt to film “Pineapple Express 2” using the camera from “127 Hours,” a certain snide reference to Hill’s “serious” role in “Moneyball”—but these are lost in a sea of broader gags. This is a big problem for those viewers who don’t find such broader gags funny, because the movie largely takes place within the confines of one house—the characters barricade themselves in as the apocalypse rages outside—so there’s little in the way of distracting scenery. You’ve probably seen the bit involving the guys rationing a Milky Way bar in the commercials; it goes on forever (and is just as superfluous) in the actual film. A frenzied conversation about ejaculation was clearly designed with 13-year-old boys’ sensibilities in mind. A sequence of demonic possession would have been right at home in “Scary Movie 5.” OK, I said I wouldn’t simply recount material that didn’t work for me, but if you haven’t seen the film, ask yourself if you think you’d find these scenes amusing.
Once they’ve had enough of the house—nearly 90 minutes in, as the film runs way too long—Rogen and Goldberg finish with a sprawling action sequence, complete with a giant, winged CGI demon. You can sense that they were impressed with this absurd creation, and perhaps I would have fallen for it, too, had I been less tired of the film by this point. But no amount of apathy toward the humor that had come before could stop me from bursting into laughter at the very final scene, which houses a cameo for the ages (I dare not spoil it here). What a shame that the whole of “This is the End” isn’t as endearing and surprising as this showstopper, because a sustained heaping of such brilliance would have made for a comedy classic.