Vanity projects can be wildly hit-or-miss. They tend to fall into two categories: shameless Oscar bids ("Yentl", "The Postman", "Mr. Saturday Night") and poor excuses to hang with friends ("Ocean's Twelve", "Couples Retreat", "Grown Ups"). While the former tend to be explained away as "labors of love", the latter succeed solely based on the audience's willingness to watch their favorite movie stars cash a paycheck (and yes, I include Ben Affleck's 2003 sci-fi dud, "Paycheck"). "This Is the End", Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's apocalyptic meta-comedy, could have easily degenerated into navel-gazing in-jokes, but - thanks to a clever script and ripe premise - I'll be damned if they don't pull it off.
Since this is a Seth Rogen vehicle, it takes less than 60 seconds for the humor to turn scatological. Jokes about gluten and "cleansing" occupy the opening frames as Seth and long-time buddy Jay Baruchel spend a lazy LA afternoon with pot, videogames and pizza. After the smoke (literally) has cleared, the duo attend a party at James Franco's house where (again, literally) all Hell breaks loose.
In the film, each actor plays a heightened version of themselves, and each seems perfectly willing to poke fun at their famous personae:
Mr. Rogen is the stoner sellout, Mr. Baruchel is the B-list outsider, Mr. Franco is the artsy weirdo, Jonah Hill is the obsequious peacemaker, Craig Robinson is the sweat-prone musician and Danny McBride is, well, Danny McBride.
Around the central gang, cutesy cameos abound: Emma Watson, Channing Tatum and, particularly, Michael Cera (who goes The Full Neil Patrick Harris) all score points. Of course, what starts as a game of "who's who" quickly turns into a random, showy "look who we can get to be in our movie". Rihanna? Mindy Kaling? Someone else you might recognize? Ok, we get it.
Once Hell has been unleashed (with the kind of impressive - and anatomically-correct - special effects that even a light comedy warrants nowadays), the remainder of the film becomes a pastiche of post-apocalyptic parodies ("Night of the Living Dead", "The Exorcist", "The Road Warrior"). You can all but hear Mr. Rogen and Mr. Goldberg brainstorming, "how can we turn this trope on its head?"
The good news is that they succeed because - unlike Danny McBride's typically (and awesomely) abrasive character - the gags don't overstay their welcome. Just when you're growing tired of one bit, another one pops up. It's almost enough to sustain the film's nearly two hours (doesn't anyone make a tight, 90-minute comedy anymore?).
Like any vanity project, your enjoyment of "This Is the End" will be directly proportional to your fondness for the lead actors. And while the script, and the film, hangs by the thinnest of threads, it does work within its own universe and, in its own way, it delivers. It's certainly not a comedy that will work for everyone but, well, that's not the end of the world.
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