If you've grown weary of the Judd Apatow school of comedy — the patented examination of male anxieties in their various forms, starring the usual rotating roster of familiar faces — "This Is the End," which finds the Apatow players facing down the apocalypse, is likely not going to bring you back into the fold. But by staying away you would be missing out on the crudest, most audacious, and balls-out nuttiest comedy released so far this year. There's still plenty of time left in 2013, but I have a hard time believing that I'll see anything at the multiplex as delightfully demented as Seth Rogen and company playing soccer with a severed head, or a larcenous, axe-wielding Emma Watson.
Adding to the oddball insanity of the film, the actors all play themselves, or rather, fictionalized versions of themselves. As the film opens, Seth Rogen is picking up his old friend, Jay Baruchel, from the airport. Baruchel is visiting from Canada in order to spend some quality time with Rogen, who long ago left his Canuck buddy behind to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. After welcoming Baruchel to L.A. with a smorgasbord of video games and weed, Rogen convinces his reluctant pal to accompany him to a raucous party at James Franco's mansion, where he hopes to integrate his old friend with his posse of famous new friends. The party scene is filled with cameos galore from just about every currently popular name in comedy (and Rihanna, for some inexplicable reason), all clearly eager to have some fun messing with their public personas. Michael Cera wins the cameo contest, depicted here as a coked-out-of-his-mind sex fiend.
Eventually, Rogen and Baruchel venture down to the local convenience store to get some snacks, but suddenly the earth begins to shake, giant sinkholes open up, the Hollywood hills burst into flames, and all around them, citizens get yanked into the sky by a blue light. Wouldn't you know it, it's The Rapture. After the majority of the partygoers are horribly slaughtered en masse, the few survivors — Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson (plus Danny McBride, who unbeknownst to the group, had crashed the party and passed out upstairs) — barricade themselves inside the mansion and attempt to wait out the end of the world.
Amidst the rampant drug use, dick jokes, and goofy, over-the-top gore, perhaps what's most shocking is how sincerely the film takes its premise. The focus on how the group has to deal with the complications that might arise when the world comes to an end, from rationing food, to looters, to fending off demonic entities hellbent on your destruction, was surprising. Horror-comedies are tricky to pull off tone-wise, but directors and co-writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg get the balance just right. The film is equal parts stoner comedy and apocalyptic horror flick, but also manages to double as a disarmingly earnest examination of friendship, loyalty, and what it means to be a decent human being.
There's a bit of sly commentary on Hollywood and celebrity mixed in to boot; Goldberg and Rogen aren't ignorant of the implications behind the idea that when The Rapture occurs, all of Hollywood would be left behind. There's some actual depth here — not a ton, mind you — but more than you might expect from a movie featuring randy demons sporting enormous erections. They even find the time to spoof some scenes from classic horror films, including a killer "Rosemary's Baby" reference. The sometimes shoddy effects only add to the charm.
My major complaint about the movie is that I wish women played a more significant role in the proceedings; aside from the scene with Emma Watson, the female presence in the film is negligible. That's always been somewhat of a problem in the Apatow world, which has always focused on male camaraderie over anything else. Personally, I would have loved an appearance by Linda Cardellini or Busy Phillips for a "Freaks and Geeks" reunion, but alas, it wasn't meant to be.
Performances are strong, but that's expected given that the actors are all playing up exactly what they're known for, with some significant tweaks here and there. I will say that none are afraid to let themselves be seen in a negative light. Jonah Hill is possibly the real standout, playing himself with an oppressively friendly personality that hides a rather less friendly nature underneath.
"This Is the End" can feel a bit self-congratulatory at times, and some jokes can overstay their welcome. But when the stuff that does work is this hilarious, who cares? Befitting its gloriously weird tone, the film closes with a musical number, and it is nonstop bananas. And really, you can never go wrong when you end with a song.