This summer my mother saw the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg directed apocalypse stoner comedy This is the End, upon my recommendation. The following is a close paraphrase of her reaction: “One of the worst, if not the worst movie I have ever seen. Just a bunch of random shit thrown together by funny guys with big egos playing on the fact that people know they’re funny.” I hadn’t heard a reaction that negative to a movie I recommended since I forced my Dad to take me to the Pokémon movie when I was seven. (He wouldn’t let me pick a movie again for years.)
It was shocking to hear the intensity of my mom’s disdain. I hold her partially—and she holds herself fully—responsible for cultivating my comedic tastes, and she usually appreciates the same humor I do. Many of my friends thought This is the End was incredible and had passionately recommended it to me. When I saw it, I was underwhelmed because there had been so much hype, but it was far from the worst movie I’d ever seen. I was undeniably entertained and thought it would be difficult for someone not to be.
The film starts with actor Jay Baruchel (played by the actor, Jay Baruchel) landing in Los Angeles and meeting his best friend, actor Seth Rogen (played by the actor, Seth Rogen), at the airport. To clarify, the premise is that all the actors in the film are not playing characters but rather “themselves”—some hyperbolized version of their personality, or at least their public persona.
Jay and Seth smoke a bunch of weed and then Seth makes Jay go with him to a party at James Franco’s house. The party is filled with celebrities like Michael Cera, Rihanna, and Emma Watson. All of a sudden, the apocalypse starts and everyone (Cera first, and most gruesomely) dies. Everyone except our main characters, that is: Jay, Seth, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. The rest of the film chronicles these six survivors and their time trapped in Franco’s house, fighting starvation, thirst, demons, and each other, as they search for a way to redeem themselves and get “sucked up into heaven” like all the good people.
How could anyone hate that, you ask? The answer, I believe, lies in the heavily meta-textual universe in which these characters exist. Having the actors play versions of themselves provides the majority of the humor, the film’s great strength. The problem is that something so meta-textual is bound to be alienating for viewers not in the know. To appreciate it fully requires a prior knowledge of the actors, their previous performances, and even gossip about their personal lives. To understand, for instance, how layered one of Mcbride’s introductory lines in the film is—“James Franco didn’t suck any dick last night? Now I know y’all are trippin’”—you need to know the typical brash character McBride has established across his entire body of work, particularly as Kenny Powers in the HBO Show Eastbound and Down. It also helps to know that James Franco is often questioned for his ambiguous sexuality.
This is the End is a commentary on our modern day obsession with celebrity culture. But you need to be obsessed with celebrity culture, and the particular segment of culture produced by the community depicted in and working behind this film, to appreciate it. Rogen and Goldberg expect an audience that’s in on the joke with them. They don’t want people to really pay attention to the story so much as get dragged into hanging out with this crew of celebrities they love.
That strategy works for my friends and me. We grew up with these guys, and have watched them grow up in turn. Franco and Rogen have felt familiar and relatable since Freaks and Geeks. Jonah Hill was the weirdo trying to buy knee-high leather boots with goldfish swimming in the heels in The 40-Year-Old Virgin long before his Oscar nod for Moneyball. For me, they are essentially already people I hang out with. They are persistently present in my life. Besides a fairly steady stream of movies, they regularly appear in viral videos, magazines, Roasts, talk shows, and more.
My mom, on the other hand, doesn’t give a “shit” about these guys as people. To her, and probably many in my parents’ generation, they are just stoned assholes who don’t stack up to the comedic greats of their youth. The difference between my friends’ reactions and my mom’s reaction (though admittedly this is a small sample size) signifies a generational divide in the consumption of this film, founded on a larger divide in how we consume culture today.
Even with a pronounced generational divide, a great comedy, like any great film, still needs to transcend its cultural moment. Upon deeper reflection, I tend to side more and more with my mom. This is not a great comedy, and I don’t know how relevant it will be in some future era. It had the potential to be memorable, but rather than appreciating and fully exploring the meta-textual complexities inherent in the premise, the filmmakers allowed what was most interesting about their film to get swallowed up in a flashy, forgettable apocalyptic storyline.
The plot, as my mom said, is all over the place. The most enjoyable part is the first thirty minutes at Franco’s party before disaster strikes. Michael Cera steals the show, and got the hardest laughs from me, with only a few minutes of screen time, because his character—pictured hooking up with two girls at once in a bathroom, spanking Rihanna’s ass, and ingesting lethal amounts of cocaine—riffs on his public image the hardest. From there, the film has an episodic structure, in which it seems like the filmmakers simply shot every idea they could think of within this setting and then figured out afterwards how to weave it together into a coherent narrative. Adding so much loose, inane plot overshadows the nuances being built into the characters and takes away from the purity and self-awareness of those first thirty minutes.
Clearly my disappointment is not simply due to the film’s undue amount of hype. Watching it a second time, intent on ignoring biases formed during my previous viewing experience, it still drags and feels far too long in the middle. It still gives me the sense that the filmmakers became self-indulgent and lazy.
Despite all of this, for someone on the inside, there is no question This is the End is an entertaining film with some truly hilarious parts. Ultimately, my comments here are to be taken not so much as a dismissal, but as a challenge. In the context of the last decade, this film absolutely rates as an above average studio comedy. But that is exactly the problem. Maybe viewers like my friends and I should expect more from our comedies. Maybe we have become as complacent as the insular comedy community itself, which can toss together some comedic actors, let them hang out and have fun on screen for two hours, attach a good marketing campaign, and watch Hollywood’s most cherished demographic flock to the theaters. Here, Goldberg, Rogen, and friends don’t seem to have striven for much more than that.
I could probably continue ranting for a few thousand more words, but for me, I think this is the end. The rest is up to you.
Will Pinke is a Senior in the English Department.