In “This Is the End,” a horror comedy about the apocalypse, a slaphappy bunch of funky comedy stars, including James Franco, play themselves before and after Hollywood burns. It's a gross-out extravaganza, with comic heroes and antiheroes who are more like pathetic victims, effects that echo torture-streaked horror films as well as the Book of Revelations, and a generally debauched sensibility.
In short, it's a bathroom-humor bacchanal that also proves to be a satisfying act of vicious group self-parody. Even if you're not a starry-eyed fan of the comedian-writers and comic actors from the TV series and movies endlessly referenced in this film — “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” on the tube, “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” on the big screen — you may find what co-writer/directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have done with Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson sporadically hilarious.
Actually, you may find it funnier if you're not a fan of the “Judd Apatow Gang.” Rogen and Goldberg have taken their joint identity as an arrested-adolescent friendship group to nightmare-farce extremes. You can emphasize the word “joint” in the phrase “joint identity” — partly because they're often smoking weed.
This is literally the stoner comedy from hell. With “This Is the End,” we've gone from “Up in Smoke” to “Up in Flames.” Visions from the bleakest parts of the Bible break out while Franco is throwing a house-warming party in which almost everyone gets baked. The film mercilessly sends up guys who've never had to worry about practicalities. No one could be less prepared than this coddled crew for a fight to the finish against demons. When Baruchel calls for someone to toss him a knife, it inevitably lands with the blade in his thigh.
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It's also a bromance. Franco has a special thing for Rogen. Baruchel, who shares Canadian roots with Rogen, thinks he's Rogen's best friend — and looks askance at Rogen's “new” friends. (Baruchel still lives in Montreal.) Robinson plays everyone's best friend, and McBride is everyone's bad dream of a friend — a flagrantly foul embodiment of unadulterated, uncontrollable id.
The apocalypse tests their varying brands of buddyship in more ways than one. The film goes from the challenge “Can these friendships hold up under pressure?” to the bigger question, “Are these really friendships or just extensions of self-love?”
Franco throws himself into a funhouse-mirror version of himself: a poseur who can pontificate about a Subway sandwich as a work of art. Rogen manages to be semi-smart in perilously fuzzy ways — he defines “gluten” as anything bad for you, then blissfully pigs out at Carl's Jr. Baruchel pulls off the dual function of being a surrogate for anyone who doesn't find these guys amusing while being a different kind of clown himself, alternately insecure and smug. Hill plays himself as the kind of guy who makes “niceness” a goal because he really isn't all that nice. And Robinson, through some kind of musical alchemy, makes good nature and fellow feeling risible as well as lovable.
Thanks to their group chemistry and Rogen's instinctive evil genius, “This Is the End” turns effrontery into a contagious comic style — though at times it's contagious like a swinish flu.