I want to make it very clear from the beginning that I am not recommending This is the End as a movie you should go see. It’s crude, juvenile, tacky and uncouth, full of barnyard humor (or worse), and raunchy beyond belief. It’s R-rated, and deserves every bit of it. Is it also funny? I went with a friend; I laughed a lot, my friend did not. And he’s not the kind of person who is easily offended. There were four other guys in the theater when we saw it; they laughed a lot too, and as we left the place, were chatting about how incredibly funny, and also incredibly disgusting the movie was.
No, I want to review the movie, not because I thought it was great, but because I thought it was interesting. Like, theologically interesting. Because it really is a religious film, deliberately and specifically. It’s like a Rabelaisian sensibility tacked onto a medieval morality play: Everyman, starring Sir John Falstaff.
In fact, most morality plays DID star Falstaff. When we teach morality plays in theatre history classes, we usually have students read Everyman, because it’s accessible, quietly reverent, and widely available in a good English translation. But it’s very much an exception to the general order of morality plays. Most were pretty rowdy, with a Vice character, a cowardly, corpulent embodiment of most of the Deadly Sins–Vice became Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s capable hands.
Anyway, that was the point–to entertain the audience in a very basic, pretty rowdy fashion, while also teaching an improving lesson about the eternal awards granted the righteous and hideous punishments doled out to the wicked. Well, that’s This is the End. That’s exactly what it is. Sort of, though it’s also a spectacularly vulgar deconstruction of vulgar religious expectations.
The premise: here’s what happens when the Apocalypse, the End of Days, interrupts a Hollywood party at James Franco’s place. At this party are a number of movie stars: Franco, and Seth Rogan, and Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera: Rihanna and Kevin Hart and Channing Tatum, Emma Watson (fabulous, in a much-too brief role) and Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson and Danny McBride. They’re all in the movie, all playing themselves. Or, at least, some particularly unflattering version of themselves.
And that’s a lot of the point of the movie. They’re awful human beings. They even talk about it, how movie stars are complete wimps and wusses, the last people on earth you would want to count on in an emergency. They’re all incredibly selfish and whiny and cowardly, and that means that demons, stalking the earth, seem particularly interested in them.
Now, because it’s the Last Days, there’s an alternative to being roasted on a spit in hell. You can be raptured. And good people are raptured, lifted into heaven in a beam of blue light. Not movie stars though. None of them seem remotely likely to make it.
And of course, don’t we think that? Don’t we generally think that ordinary folks stopping (say) at a convenience store for some over-the-counter medicine for an ailing child are far more likely to experience Divine Grace than Seth Rogan, star of The Green Hornet and The Pineapple Express? And that becomes part of the appeal of the movie. Seth Rogan wrote and directed this film, the point of which would seem to be that Seth Rogan isn’t even close to a good enough person to go to heaven. Or James Franco or Jay Baruchel either.
Or Jonah Hill. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Jonah Hill (playing Jonah Hill), prays. “Dear God,” he says, “Jonah Hill here. (pause). From Moneyball. Anyway. . . .” Like, of course, God will pay particular heed to his prayer. I mean, he was in Moneyball. James Franco seems to feel the same way. “But we’re actors. We bring joy to millions of people,” he says, before admitting to a particularly heinous (though sadly plausible) sin he once committed.
A Morality Tale requires a Vice, and Vice, in this film, is played by Danny McBride. Of all these actors, he’s the one I know least well, but he’s known for playing red-neck creeps (I gather, from checking out his IMDB page), and he’s just disgusting in this. One scene involves a particularly awful revelation, and I think I may have forfeited the possibility of personal redemption by laughing aloud at it.
But redemption does seem possible. Some people are thrust to hell immediately–Michael Cera’s immediate damnation strikes us as peculiarly apt, though I felt a little bad when Rihanna went immediately afterwards. Others give in to demonic possession (specifically Jonah Hill, whose niceness, we see, hides a miserable personality). But Franco, Robinson, Baruchel and Rogan seem to be on a kind of cusp between good and evil. And a single act of self-sacrifice may be enough to save them.
And it is, for three of them. They get to go to heaven. Which is conceived as . . . a big Hollywood party. And this, I think, is the savviest conceit of a very smart film–the idea that, lacking any specific knowledge of what Heaven actually is like, we imagine a particularly earth-bound one. Heaven, turns out, has great weed. Pretty girls in bikinis. And in heaven, the Backstreet Boys have reunited just so they can perform for you.
But that’s right, isn’t it? As Christians, we disdain Hollywood, and are surely convinced of its damnation. But aren’t we also enticed by it? Don’t we imagine ourselves enjoying Heaven? Using our halo to light a blunt, and getting God to hook us up for front row seats at a Backstreet reunion concert? We may not specifically enumerate 72 virgins as our eternal reward, but we’re in that ballpark, imagining, perhaps, a consequence-less never-ending hedonism.
Some critics have suggested that it’s a vanity project, a film that imagines that America will be as amused by the antics of that group of actors as those actors are in love with themselves, and their oh-so-shallow friendships. I don’t think so. I think we need to dig down to another strata, where Rogan is sending up vanity project films, where he’s mocking the idea that we’ll be amused by a movie about him and his actor friends. In other words, it’s not a film about Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel and their friendship. Nor is it a movie mocking the idea of a movie about that friendship. It’s a movie mocking the idea of mocking a movie about Rogan/Baruchel Inc.
In other words, it’s a movie about the Bible, and the Apocalypse foretold in John’s Revelation. But it’s also a movie about how ridiculous it would be to take things like The Rapture and the End of Days seriously. But then it takes those ideas seriously. But then it gives us a shallow, comic book afterlife. But then, perhaps all our notions about an after-life are shallow comic books.
My head hurts. But ultimately, I think it’s a pretty interesting and serious film. One possible approach to the World might be to say, ‘no actions, ever, have consequences, so nothing’s actually evil, so I can do anything, cannibalism, anything, and who cares?’ That’s the Danny McBride approach. Another is ‘if there’s a God, let me figure out what He wants from me, because I’m a good enough actor, I can easily fake that.’ The James Franco approach. Another is, ‘just be superficially nice all the time, and God will owe you.’ Jonah Hill. But then there’s Jay Baruchel’s approach, and Craig Robinson’s–‘let me actually try to do good. Self-sacrifice seems to me the best thing humanity can manage. And I am willing to sacrifice for my friends.’ And if the heaven that earns them is silly, well, we mortals probably haven’t the wit to imagine a more real one, or one more vividly profound.