You have to give Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg credit for taking on the Rapture, and unlike Michael Tolkin (in his eponymous 1991 film) sending up not the chosen believers to heaven but the religious concept itself. By the standards of today’s Hollywood comedies, that’s pretty audacious. It’s a pity that their approach is less sharp-edged satire than frat-boy goofiness.
At root “This Is the End,” an expansion of a short that Rogen made years ago with his buddy Jay Baruchel, is very much an in-joke vanity project in which a passel of young actors who’ve been staples in the Apatow-inspired stream of slob comedies play what one hopes are skewered versions of themselves. They’re all enjoying a big bash at James Franco’s modernistic new house when Armageddon hits: good people are sucked up into the skies and not-so-good ones either fall into blazing sinkholes that open up on the lawn and drag them down to Hades, or are left to fend for themselves in a highly inhospitable environment.
Among the guests who perish in the initial onslaught is Michael Cera, who must have had fun playing against type as coke-sniffing doofus with a distinctly ungentlemanly attitude toward the ladies. But a number of survivors take refuge with Franco. There’s Rogen, along with Baruchel, who’s been visiting his friend in L.A. and has been dragged reluctantly to the party after an afternoon of video games and drug-taking at Seth’s place. Joining them are Jonah Hill, whose creepily uptight friendliness may be nothing more than a façade, and Craig Robinson, the prototypical gregarious party guy. They fortify the place as best they can against demons and marauders outside and squabble over how to divide the food on hand, while lapsing into weirdly sophomoric reveries about their fate. And a couple of visitors happen by: Emma Watson, who departs quickly after becoming irate over what the guys might have in mind for her (she wields something a bit more dangerous than a magic wand in escaping), and Danny McBride, a self-centered boor who intrudes on everything and everybody.
The movie isn’t much more than a series of sketches with a loose, improvisatory air, though some—an exorcism scene after one of the guys is possessed and a big finale that finds some of them transported to a paradise that has more to do with a stoner’s surrealistic fantasies than anything else—are more fully developed. The humor is relentlessly crude and the gags unremittingly vulgar, in line with modern taste (or lack thereof), with a penis-centered emphasis that’s totally in line with these guys’ cinematic repertoire. The self-mocking never cuts very deep, being pretty much limited to mild jibes about cinematic missteps (“The Green Hornet” and “Young Highness” both get well-deserved put-downs, while a riff on a possible “Pineapple Express” sequel has a pot-induced feel and a passerby’s early quip about Rogen never playing anybody but himself is doubly true given the context). Of the characterizations, only Cera’s and Hill’s possess any real comic bite, but McBride certainly comes across as a loathsome creep—the problem is that his pugnacious nastiness isn’t remotely funny. A few other members of the usual crew—like Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling—show up briefly, though their appearances don’t add much beyond a “Where’s Waldo” sort of kick.
“This Is the End” boasts lots of special effects, all deliberately cheesy and most emphasizing the movie’s sex-driven motifs, with the huge devil with what appears to be a massive hard-on in the finale the most obvious example. They all fit in with the scattershot, haphazard quality of this adolescent end-of-days farrago, which seems perfectly suited to midnight screenings for well-stoked audiences. If you come to it with a clear head (or a few years on its cast), though, you’ll probably think that it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.
For a truly edgy apocalyptic satire one still has to go back nearly half a century to “Dr. Strangelove.” No Rapture, and no penis or masturbation jokes, to be sure, but a lot more wit.