The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
This is The End

Written by Jim Holden.

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The six leads of This is the End - Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride - have all established, and have often played on, their public personas. Baruchel is the kooky geek out of his depth, Franco the pretty, soulful arty type, Rogen the loudmouth stoner, Hill often angry and confused, Robinson misunderstood, dry and sarcastic, and McBride is loud, rude, in your face and very annoying. And although most of them have occasionally strayed from this template by this point in their careers (James Franco most successfully), it is a common and safe return when they frequent popular films with this range of dry wit and puerile humour.

Indeed, you may argue that they have built their reputations on these characteristics. Rogen is the case in point: he rarely departs from his heavy laugh, quick wit and sex-and-booze attitude - even when playing a superhero (in The Green Hornet [2011]). And this is why they have mass appeal: they (normally) strive to play broadly likeable, everyday, relatable, familiar characters - young men whose company we enjoy, with whom we can laugh. They are very much the front and centre of modern American film comedy - and we know, on the whole, what to expect when their names appear above the title.

This reaches its zenith in This Is The End. For one, these actors are playing themselves. Not only that, but they’re playing on, and with, their very public star personas. The idea of an actor playing himself is something I will come to in a moment, but in this case, it works, as these roles, nuanced with some subtlety, some tweaking, play to the cast’s strengths. The spectator needs to get to know them as characters, rather than the impression that is given upon their first appearance - it’s an idea that is played about with (most interestingly with Franco’s sexuality, again something of a knowing nod), yes, but it is still, essentially, them.

This is the End would be a considerably lesser film if the actors were just playing another nameless version of themselves, or the themselves that we think we know. If they were playing characters (that is, fictional characters rather than fictionalised versions of their own characters), the film would not work. It would be annoying, stagey and forced. The fact it works is precisely because we are watching these people embody and send-up themselves. This is the joke, but it is also the crucial plot point. Not for one moment do we believe it is real, but even that is not the point. The point is that it is a lot more believable and funny if we buy into the setup, because of who these people are, how they behave, and the actions they take. Seth Rogen's take on it, in an interview with The Guardian is that “a lot of them [the actors] play directly into how you [the audience] think they are” - which not only means that the actors are in on the joke, but that they play up to this to get more laughs.

And this is the crux of the success of the film: self-deprecation. A horror comedy can be a tricky thing to pull off (and this is more comedy than anything else), and adding this further level of comedy to proceedings garners more laughs. For instance, it would be funny if Danny McBride was playing a fresh character - but by playing up to his reputation, and with a knowledge of his work, characters, and style, the payoff functions doubly to greater effect. His opening scene is framed in this way, almost like a skit, and his betrayal and bitter resentment at the film’s climax works so effectively because of his particular star status. His inspired pairing with Channing Tatum as his bitch also adds another layer to this double-functioning. Or as Evan Goldberg says “It is the full circle of comedy”: the idea that not only are we laughing at a character; not just that we are laughing at a character whom we know and expect to act this way; we’re also laughing because they’re going far beyond those expectations.

In the wider context, though, This is the End is certainly not groundbreaking, as actors playing ‘themselves’ in film is nothing new, as Guardian and Empire have been quick to point out. The tactic is often used in comedy because its allows an actor more freedom to express him or herself, stemming as it does from the roots of modern film comedy - those of performance and stand up. It offers the impression of a true, ‘honest’ role, and is something that works not just through humour, but the exploitation of concepts such as authenticity and pathos.

Interestingly, the other apocalypse comedy film of the summer, The World’s End, goes the other way, with Simon Pegg et al playing different characters to those they usually play. It’s both familiar and fresh: the film still features a fence gag, like the two Edgar Wright-directed films before it. It is a subtle wink to the audience, linking the work with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, if not referencing them directly. A subtle, for-the-fans moment is one clever, playful form of repetitive comedy - but to do a whole film, like This is the End, is perhaps the more ambitious achievement.

While This is the End breaks no boundaries, it is still a bold, fresh, big comedy. It justifies its style of comedy by letting the actors play to their strengths and let rip. Even then it is no barrage of similar gags, although at times some jokes do wear thin. But for every McBride rant or Robinson wisecrack, there is Baruchel, front and centre. He’s probably the most unknown of the six, but in playing to his strengths and providing honest, clever, realist humour, he grounds the film and is key to its success. Although he’s playing a version of his screen persona he brings a level of subtle self deprecation needed in this knowing, and yes, clever, film.

This Alternate Take was published on August 14, 2013.