By Gary Dowell
Calling This Is the End the best comedy of the year (so far) may seem like a back-handed compliment given the competition, but it truly delivers the laughs as well as energy that recent comedies have been lacking. You can tell its cast is fully engaged with the material and having the time of their lives doing it, as opposed to the boredom broadcast by the Hangover III‘s seemingly jaded Wolf Pack, who only projected an aura of “Where’s my paycheck?”.
The set-up is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant: actor Jay Baruchel (playing himself, as does everyone else) arrives in town to visit best bud Seth Rogen, who prods him into attending a housewarming party at James Franco’s new pad. The attendees are a who’s who of El Lay comedy talent: Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Jason Segal, Aziz Ansara, David Krumholtz, as well as fellow celebs Emma Watson, Rihanna, and a few others in cameo appearances best left unspoiled. It’s a stereotypical Hollywood scene, complete with cocaine, pomposity, and pretension, until most of the aforementioned actors die horribly when the Rapture occurs about 15 minutes into the movie.
Once the brimstone settles a little, the movie finds its groove as a very bizarre survival story as Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Robinson, Hill, and McBride try to figure out how to ride out the apocalypse. Among the challenges they face: existential crises, rationing the food, water, drugs, and sole porn magazine; and coping with a demon-possessed Jonah Hill. It’s how the Westboro Baptist Church would stage a season of Survivor after getting stoned for the first time.
Most of the laughs are delivered from the ruthless and unflattering ways the actors parody themselves, or at least viewers’ tabloid-fueled interpretations of who they are: Rogen doesn’t just settle for shots at his dopey laugh, he’s plays himself as a hedonistic goof who’s rarely without a joint; Cera skewers his nice-guy image by swapping it for one as a coke-addled sex fiend; Franco cranks the weirdness and pretentiousness to 11; and McBride finds his dark place as a self-absorbed oaf who finds Judgment Day strangely liberating. (The gimp he later obtains is both the funniest and most disturbing cameo appearance committed to celluloid in years.)
Granted, it ain’t perfect, and it’s occasionally content to coast here and there, but those instances are far and few between, and when the gags aren’t clever they are at least unexpected, and almost always disturbing. (Though they often avoid the more sensitive material, such as Rogen’s starring role opposite Barbra Streisand in the flop The Guilt Trip, Franco’s performance as an Academy Awards co-host, and Hill’s fluctuating weight.) At its heart it’s a disaster movie, and thus the action sequences are perfectly over-the-top and dressed in suitably cheesy CGI. To put too fine a point on it: It’s like After Earth, only intentionally funny.