Finally, a movie that both godless hedonists and fundamentalist Bible-thumpers can get behind! “This Is the End,” a comedy in which the apocalypse comes to Hollywood and takes most of the A-list with it, will probably be perceived as wish fulfillment for anyone who believes that civilization in general and movies in particular are going to hell in a handbasket. Others will accept this crass, patchy, often shamelessly funny farce — a sort of Boy’s (Last) Night Out — in the playfully subversive meta-spirit in which it is offered.
If nothing else, “This Is the End” sends up the new rules of celebrity engagement that allow us to think we really know the stars. There’s a party at James Franco’s house, and Franco’s playing himself — or a pompous, eager-to-please version of himself that slyly dovetails with aspects of his public persona. Rihanna (Rihanna) is there, as are Jonah Hill (Jonah Hill), Mindy Kaling (Mindy Kaling), and dozens of other known quantities. Seth Rogen has just shown up with his old friend Jay Baruchel, a grouchy out-of-towner who hates everything L.A. Michael Cera’s all coked up and acting like a jackass.
Then the earth opens up, the Hollywood Hills burst into flame, and the worthy are raptured up into heaven in beams of blue light. There is carnage, with many of America’s best-loved entertainers meeting gruesome fates. Sadly, we don’t get to see what happens to the agents.
These opening scenes are easily the movie’s most inspired, with their comic implication that movie stars not only hang out together all the time but drive each other crazy just like you and your friends do. Then the world ends and the movie still has an hour and a half to go. Most of that time is spent barricaded in Franco’s house with fellow survivors Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Craig Robinson, and, for better and mostly worse, Danny McBride. The joke here — that the “real” McBride is even more obnoxious than the one in his movies — isn’t nearly as funny as the filmmakers think.
Supplies run low, especially after a beloved young British actress makes a surprise appearance wielding a fire ax. Franco and Rogen are reduced to making a home-video sequel to “Pineapple Express” out of sheer boredom. The Beast is prowling the grounds outside. And with all that potential material, the movie keeps sliding into the tedium of pee-pee gags and mawkish bromance. This is the way the world ends when there are no women around,
“This Is the End” is based on a 2007 short, “Seth and Jay vs the Apocalypse” — a trailer is on YouTube but the full version has never been released — and you can feel the padding, as director Evan Goldberg vamps and vamps while waiting for lightning to strike. And sometimes it does: A late-inning exorcism sequence kicks the movie back into full lunatic gear, and once the survivors venture out into the smoking remains of Los Angeles, a few satisfying surprises await, including the whereabouts of Channing Tatum and a glimpse of the afterlife as a blissed-out rent party.
Maybe that won’t please the evangelicals, nor will a deep theological discussion in which the Holy Trinity is compared to Neapolitan ice cream sit well with the devoutly humorless. But “This Is the End” is, in its slapdash way, about getting one’s just desserts, whether that is being devoured by a crew of Beverly Hills cannibals or knocking on heaven’s door with your best buddy by your side. Leave it to Hollywood to find a happy ending for Armageddon.