Friday, June 14, 2013

This is the End: Can a Movie Just Be Funny?

In This is the End, a house-warming party as James Franco's is suddenly interrupted when the apocalypse starts. And so, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and James Franco are trapped inside a house trying to survive the end of days. These actors are all well known for appearing in a series of movies and television series associated with Judd Apatow. They all share a knack for a particular brand of improvisational humor. In that way, it makes sense to put them together in an extreme situation in which they banter and bounce off each other. But funny people and funny dialogue do not a good movie make.

Comedy movies sidelining their plot is not a new phenomenon. Some of the funniest movies in recent memory work better as a collection of funny situations than as an overarching narrative. Christopher Guest's best movies, for example, tend to rely on his cast of terrific performers bouncing off of each other more than in any plot developments. Similarly, Borat, one of the most successful comedies of the last decade, featured a rather weak plot (something that bothered me at the time it came out), but worked incredibly well when it relied on Sacha Baron Cohen's performance and his interactions with the real life citizens he encountered. You don't need a very complex or original plot to be a good comedy (or a good film in general, for that matter). But when you have a weak plot, you need something else to make up for it. In most cases, as the ones listed above, it's well-developed, interesting characters. 

In the case of the character work in This is the End, my reaction is somewhat mixed. As is usually the case when actors play "themselves", they are actually playing a version of their personality. It was to be expected that these actors would exaggerate certain characteristics of themselves in the movie, but I actually didn't expect them to do it in such an extreme manner. The most extreme of this cases is Jonah Hill who is presented as a truly bizarre individual and even has a very funny demonic sequence towards the latter half of the film. Danny McBride and James Franco are also not afraid of coming off as unlikable and that is a strength of the movie. My problem really is with what is undoubtedly the central relationship of the film. 

The movie can get a lot of laughs from having these five guys bouncing off each other, but that is hardly something I could tolerate for two hours. In that sense I was very happy when the movie opened with a scene featuring only Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel and establishing their relationship as the narrative focus. The movie, after all, was based on a short film called Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse, which starred, you guessed it, Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. The dynamic between these two feels very similar to that of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera's characters in Superbad. But at the same time, the insistence on keeping the other four guys for most of the running-time has the movie spending way too much time on them and not enough on developing the central relationship. The story beats of what goes on between Rogen and Baruchel come sporadically and at times don't even have any weight to them. Unlike the central duo of Superbad, the possible end of this friendship isn't something we are really invested in.

Still, the sincere moments we get from Rogen and Baruchel are much appreciated and do manage to anchor the movie amongst all the crazy hijinks. Most importantly, the idea of Jay being an outsider to Rogen's new life in Hollywood makes him a sort of audience surrogate that allows the movie to get away with a lot of jokes that otherwise could alienate the audience in their "insider-y" nature. In other words, this doesn't feel like a bunch of internal jokes that only the people that made the movie can understand. There is a lot of funny to be found in This is the End, and a lot of it comes from the celebrity cameos. Michael Cera's jerky version of himself is particularly winning (maybe the funniest part of the movie) as is another appearance late in the movie that I wouldn't dream of spoiling for those who haven't seen the movie.

There is a lot of funny stuff in This is the End, but ultimately, it just doesn't have the discipline to work both as a funny movie and a good movie. The story of how Seth's rise to fame and Hollywood lifestyle would alienate his relationship with an old friend is a good one. It's full of real and sincere feelings that could have made a really good movie. The people behind This is the End, however, stand distant to the more emotional elements and decide to refuge themselves in funny banter and grotesque images. They're just trying to be funny on a level that makes it too obvious and insincere. At one point Seth Rogen says "this is cra cra" instead of saying "this is crazy". I suppose the reasoning is that that phrasing is just funnier. But we can see right through the decision and that just takes away from the funny.

Grade: 5/10

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