Wednesday, June 12, 2013

This Is the End: Out with a whimper

This Is the End (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, and quite generously, for pervasive profanity and drug use, violence, gore, relentless crude and sexual content, and impressively graphic nudity (not all of it human)
By Derrick Bang

The devoutly religious are certain to disagree, but this tiresome vanity production is too stupid to be blasphemous.

After Emma Watson re-thinks her ill-advised decision to place her safety in the hands of
half a dozen self-centered horn dogs, she mounts an escape with the help of a handy
axe. Unfortunately, this may be a classic case of leaping from the frying pan and
directly into the fire...
It’s relentlessly vulgar, however, in the arrested adolescent manner that we’ve come to expect when Seth Rogen, James Franco and their homies assemble for “something fun.” In this case, the “fun” comes from playing themselves — no stretch there, since most have been doing that all along — and behaving badly when God proves that the Book of Revelations wasn’t mere biblical filler.

Like so many of today’s limp-noodle, man-boy comedies, This Is the End stretches a mildly amusing concept far beyond the average viewer’s patience. Actually, we know this to be true, since this film is “expanded” from a 9-minute 2007 short titled Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse. Honestly, beefing up the cast and adding another 98 minutes (!) did nothing to improve the material.

Although Rogen and Evan Goldberg uncork an impressively apocalyptic third act — they collaboratively wrote and directed this case study in wasted celluloid — one must wade through nearly an hour of tedious, contrived and self-indulgent “banter” in order to get there.

Riffing the stoner culture may have been novel and slightly daring when Cheech & Chong made Up in Smoke way back in 1978, but I’d like to think film comedy has progressed a bit since then. Rogen and Goldberg apparently didn’t get that message, since they clearly believe that merely showing a baggie of weed is enough to prompt a belly laugh.

By the same toke(n), it’s time to declare a moratorium on the faux homoeroticism that seems to pass for “cool” among some of today’s Hollywood types. When Rogen and his fellow “reality stars” aren’t chortling over how blasted they’ve gotten, they trade barbed comments apparently intended to demonstrate their hip, quasi-gayness, while nonetheless retreating to safer hetero territory whenever the tone threatens to become emasculating.

“Safer territory,” in turn, emerges in strained one-liners that make sport of bodily functions: the sort of lowest-common-denominator crudeness that once remained the province of little boys trading bad words behind the woodshed, but now has become something of a badge of pride among today’s lazy comedy writers. It’s apparently shorthand for rugged manhood.

This overworked 21st century cliché hits low ebb here during an ejaculation exchange — merely verbal, I’m happy to report — between James Franco and Danny McBride, which goes on and on and on and on. Constant Companion and I exchanged glances, and the unspoken message was obvious: Seriously? This is what film comedy has descended to?

Actually, this film is quite obsessed with the anatomical male member that still remains mostly taboo in mainstream cinema, although Rogen and Goldberg stretch that envelope quite impressively, from limp dick jokes to the massively erect phallus sported by a particularly nasty demon with nothing good in mind.

Hey, I guess if you can sucker a major studio into parting with $30 million in order to film little more than an extended party with your best friends, that’s a pretty good gig. Too bad they had to share it with the rest of us.

In fairness, This Is the End does manage a few half-hearted stabs at social commentary, as during the opening scene, when Rogen — playing himself, as everybody does here — tries to dodge an intrusive fan with a videocam, who hovers in the hopes of provoking some sort of reaction. That’s life in our world of fame for its own sake, thanks to reality TV “stars” run amok.

It could be said, of course, that this entire film riffs that concept, but I can’t grant much credit for overstating the obvious for 107 minutes.

Anyway, Rogen’s at the Los Angeles Airport to collect good buddy Jay Baruchel, a Canadian colleague from back in the day, when both were stars of the under-appreciated 2001 TV series Undeclared. That longstanding bond sets up some “tension” in this limp-noodle script, because Rogen’s “new friends” — Franco, Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill — keep insisting that Baruchel is a drag on Rogen’s blossoming Hollywood career.

Which is why Hill doesn’t really “like” Baruchel, while outwardly feigning bonhomie. Such trite, superficial behavior is all this film offers in the way of actual characterization, so don’t set your expectations high.

After a debauched day of weed, alcohol, video games and other wild ’n’ crazy hijinks, Rogen hauls a reluctant Baruchel to a massive party at Franco’s upscale, fortress-like mansion. (That latter quality will prove useful.) It’s quite the happening, with a guest list that includes Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and even Rihanna.

But it isn’t Baruchel’s bag; he’s not entirely comfortable in this hedonistic scene. (Actually, Cera is the only party guest being truly hedonistic, in an offensively condescending and arrogant manner.) Rosen agreeably joins Baruchel on a trip to the local convenience store, for some cigarettes, at which point All Hell Breaks Loose.

Quite literally.

Baruchel immediately recognizes the significance of the brilliant blue lights that transport numerous folks heavenward, a detail lost on Rogen. They hustle back to Franco’s place, dodging driverless vehicles, spontaneous sink-holes and gouts of fire, only to discover the party proceeding without incident, nobody inside having noticed anything amiss.

Okay, that moment delivers a well-deserved laugh.

But the interior calm doesn’t last long, thanks to foundation-shaking earthquakes and the smoke-laden debris that rains down as the entire Hollywood hillside bursts into flame. Amid mindless panic and a huge express sinkhole to Hell that opens in Franco’s front yard, our cast dwindles to a precious few: Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill and Robinson.

Signaling a Monty Python-esque approach to unexpected gore, one of the other party guests perishes in a dramatically gruesome — albeit fully deserved — manner. Accompanied by, yes, a darkly amusing smart phone joke.

That’s the truly frustrating part about this film: Rogen, Goldberg et al do indeed demonstrate an occasional talent for genuine humor. They simply don’t do it often enough.

Hunkering down in the manner of survivors they’ve watched in end-of-the-world movies and TV shows, our heroes carefully ration their supplies and settle in for ... they know not what. Tension arrives when McBride joins the gang, having slept through the initial horror but now brought up to speed with a fresh burst of über-violence. Trouble is, nobody likes McBride, whose intimidating, alpha-male attitude interferes with the group’s half-hearted efforts to embrace the bigger picture.

Baruchel also disrupts the uneasy group dynamic, although not intentionally, by citing biblical passages to support his view of what’s actually happening. Nobody wants to hear that stuff, preferring to believe that “rescue” eventually will arrive.

The bulk of the film then settles into variations on a theme of what Hollywood morons would do, if faced with the apocalypse. Naturally, their efforts to get by, from one day to the next, involve their limited comfort zone. Trouble is, that sort of self-indulgent “what the hell” resignation works as a blackly humorous joke only for a few seconds, as Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard understood when they had Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz exchange a fatalistic look while lighting a final joint in the penultimate scene of 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods.

Trying to milk such a moment over an entire act merely prompts tedious scenes where Rogen, Franco and the others improvise banal dialogue while trying to kill time (if not each other). Oh, sure, we get some homages to the likes of The Mist, The Exorcist and cannibal-culture horror flicks — the latter including a hilariously surprising cameo — but the material is thin, the parodies clumsily forced.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Linden and the resourceful team at Modus in Montreal deserve considerable credit for their monster-making; they uncork some truly frightening demons, and a few scenes involving these nasties are well-paced and quite suspenseful. That’s actually one of this film’s few genuine treats: Linden and his crew get very impressive results from all their apocalyptic mayhem, on a meager effects budget of $3 million.

At the end of the day, though, This Is the End is little more than an insufferably long-winded inside joke. Rogen and Goldberg really should have paid more attention to Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and other far more successful blends of self-referential horror humor. This self-indulgently masturbatory twist on “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” is nothing but an insult to patrons who worked hard for the money wasted on a ticket purchase.

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