From the peak of Anchorman to the nadir of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the formula for studio comedies of the last 20 years has been simple: Dude acts like a dick for an hour, turns blandly sweet toward the end, and then everyone on the DVD commentary can claim to have made a movie about redemption. Since we like to forgive, and we like to like the stars who make us laugh, this has proven profitable — audiences can relish in the bad behavior and then take comfort in the restoration of something like a crackpot decency. But it's hampered the range of movie comedy. Even as the language has grown more flamboyantly obscene and exposed junk has become the new red-heart boxer shorts, the comic form itself has rarely been less anarchic. What bite could The Campaign have, when we knew that in the end Will Ferrell's baby-punching, wife-poaching candidate would prove as apple-pie pure as a Capra Boy Scout?
Perhaps wrath-of-God hang-out flick This Is the End can kill redemption cold. A deeply nondenominational Left Behind rip, the film — written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the star's longtime writing partner — makes absurdly literal the prick-becomes-a-man plotting that has held sway since Billy Madison. Here, it's judgment day, and our schlubby everydudes (playing themselves, who aren't everydudes at all) are holed up for the apocalypse in James Franco's compound. After much violent misadventure, and even more talk of where it's appropriate to ejaculate, the lugs — including Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Franco — realize the obvious: Good people have already been raptured, and these guys haven't. ("I'm an actor," one moans in disbelief. "I bring people joy!") If they want a happy ending and not to be devoured by horizon-straddling hellbeasts with schoolbus-size phalluses, they'll have to do the thing the heroes in lazy movie comedies always do: stop being dicks and give the universe a reason to love them. To Rogen and Goldberg's credit, this does seem parodic.
Whether they win that love I'll leave to you. I laughed a lot, but this is one of those films for which a list of its ingredients should tell you whether you'll find it delectable or poisonous. For all its Book of Revelations trappings, at heart it's a loose, hard-R comedy full of funny dudes running amok in a mansion, the jokes often just the dudes' scabrous one-upping of each other on MPAA-baiting topics that will seem outrageous to anyone who's never heard comedians or 12-year-olds talk among themselves. Discussed here, with a touch too much "ain't-we-daring?" self-congratulations: sharting, the titty-fucking of overweight men, the unstoppable epicness of Danny McBride's masturbation.
This is all performed with brio by likable performers with expert timing, ace chemistry, and a directing team eager to let them tear loose. But it can wear you down. By the time McBride turns up with a hooded man-slave and hollers "I'll butt-fuck him right here!" all I could think of was the little old lady who comedian Rick Jenkins describes taking down a shock comic at Boston's Comedy Studio: "You should try for more," she heckled.
Still, at its best, which is often, the movie does try for more. A pre-cataclysm party at Franco's is more fun than the bashes at Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby's, chockablock with stars acting out: Michael Cera goes riotously coke-mad; Craig Robinson serenades Rihanna's panties; and Baruchel treats us to a winning shy-dude turn reminiscent of his itchy, appealing work years back on Judd Apatow's TV college comedy Undeclared. When all the cock-talk lets up, Rogen and Goldberg parade before us memorable surprises. There are ridiculous cameos (Emma Watson spits "fuck" like the word still means something), shock-effect horror kills (often of those cameo-ing actors), and stoned riffs on The Exorcist and Pineapple Express, each one part parody and part Be Kind, Rewind-style sweding.
Especially pleasurable are the light, hilarious gags on the cluelessness of Hollywood actors, especially from Jonah Hill, who has rarely been this disarming. Praying, he mentions to God that, yes, he was in Moneyball; his idea of a compliment, delivered with full sincerity after Jay Baruchel mentions some bit of pop-cultural detritus, is to marvel "sick reference."
The survival situations and dopey metaphysics are smartly worked out, and they, too, build to satisfying laughs, especially the gentler stuff, like when the boys all tuck in next to each other. (For a movie as penis-obsessed as this one is, there's refreshingly little gay-panic talk; only McBride indulges, and he's meant to be irredeemable.) There's even some affecting character work. Rogen and Baruchel's friendship gets tested, which naturally figures into that third-act turn toward godliness; surprisingly, that friendship comes to seem like something the rest of us should value, too, much like the one in Superbad, which Rogen and Goldberg also wrote.
Unlike too many comedies, This Is the End gets stronger as it goes, especially when the cosmic finish tasks its cast with bigger things than talking about jacking off. In fact, as Rogen and company strive for that grandest of all redemptions, the movie seems both a culmination of and an elegy for the comedies that have made them rich: Seriously, after going this far, both in raunchy bad-boyism and mock-apologetic love-us shamelessness, they've effectively blown up their own formula. That's not a bad thing. This is the end; now it's time to try for more.