Many people who plan to see “This Is the End” are going to see it no matter what the reviews are and no matter what the word-of-mouth says. The appeal of the movie is practically instinctive with them, just as resistance to it is reflexive in others. And it’s those others who need convincing in this case, because “This Is the End” is genuinely imaginative and one of the funniest movies of the season.
It takes place as the world is coming to an end and stars Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and about a dozen other young celebrities playing themselves, in roles big and small. That’s the hitch, that whole playing-themselves thing. In the last 10 years or so, it has become a cliché for celebrities to portray themselves on screen as vain, ridiculous and obnoxious, in fake gestures of self-deprecation that really are designed to say the opposite: “Obviously, to send myself up as a jerk, I couldn’t possibly be a jerk. I’m really a wonderful person, at least as wonderful as we both think I am.”
Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote and directed “This Is the End,” don’t subvert this recent tendency. Rather, they overcome it by diving deep into it. And so Michael Cera, for example, appears as a coked out, sexually rapacious version of himself. Rogen and Goldberg go bigger and wilder throughout, until their willingness to keep going to extremes becomes the opposite of obnoxious. It feels more like goodwill, a generous effort to entertain the audience at every turn.
“This Is the End” takes place in the near future, maybe tomorrow, or later today: Rogen picks up his childhood friend, Jay Baruchel, at the airport, and they go back to his house, where they smoke so much pot that they don’t even register the latest news, that a sinkhole has opened up and swallowed half of Guatemala. Instead they go off to a party at the house of James Franco, who presents himself here as someone without a thought in his head. Everybody who is young and famous is partying at Franco’s, including Emma Watson from “Harry Potter” (in a very funny cameo), the singer Rihanna and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Kick-Ass”), who worries about contamination after Michael Cera blows a handful of cocaine in his face.
Then bad things start happening to not-very-nice people. The righteous are swooped up into the sky in a celestial ray of love, while everybody at Franco’s house keeps celebrating like it’s 1999. If only it were. But no, it’s 2013, and time has run out.
At least 85 minutes of the movie’s 107-minute run time takes place after the end-times countdown has begun, and looking back on the movie it’s rather surprising to realize how Rogen and Goldberg succeed in maintaining freshness in what easily might have been a static situation: It’s just a handful of guys at Franco’s house, conserving food and water, while hoping to be rescued.
The filmmakers keep it interesting by making the personal relationships dynamic and uneasy: Andy McBride shows up, and he’s high-handed and oblivious. Meanwhile, there is a running tension between the forthright Jay and Jonah Hill, who is presented as the most secretly hostile and passive-aggressive figure since Anne Baxter in “All About Eve.”
Though “This Is the End” drags slightly here and there, it always comes back strong, and the movie redeems all that is self-referential and self-congratulatory about it with a warmth of spirit. Rogen, who became very famous at an early age, really should be a monster by now, but – knock on wood – that doesn’t seem to be happening.