What if the world were to end in Hollywood? No, not the box office figures of the new Will Smith movie, but a full-blown biblical apocalypse, complete with fire and brimstone? The good people would be pulled up to heaven in a Rapture of blue lights. The actors would all gather at James Franco's house to figure out how much marijuana they had left and how they could split their final Milky Way between five people.
This is the conceit of This Is the End, the Book of Revelation as gross-out comedy. It stars a bunch of movie stars playing versions of themselves, with all the attendant self-regard ("Who do they rescue first? Actors," says Jonah Hill, as the first hints of disaster seep through) played as parody, and their images turned on their heads.
Here, for instance, is the usually anodyne Michael Cera as a sexual libertine taking women two at a time and blowing clouds of cocaine, one of the many twists that let the cast tweak their images and at the same time wallow in the warm bath of their own fame.
The tone of self-congratulation is all part of the fun ? at least for the cast ? as This Is the End settles into its lunatic combination of inside joke and horror film. This is a movie that has an exorcism that borrows from The Exorcist because, as someone says, the people who made that movie must have done their research.
None of that research stuff is necessary here: This is a film about the people in the film, many of them Canadians, who seem to have a way with end-of-the-world cinema (witness Don McKellar's Last Night).
Written by Vancouver natives Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, it starts with Montrealer Jay Baruchel visiting Rogen in Los Angeles, somewhat against his will ? Baruchel is portrayed as having slightly finer sensibilities than old friend Seth, who's gone native ? and then traipsing off to Franco's cubist mansion for a party.
Everyone is there: Brampton, Ont., native Cera, slapping Rihanna on the butt (and getting whupped upside the head for his trouble); Hill being overly solicitous about Baruchel, who thinks he's a jerk anyway; Craig Robinson (The Office and Pineapple Express ? in many ways the film is a reunion from that film); Emma Watson, who accuses Baruchel of thinking he's better than other people because he doesn't like movies everyone else likes (Forrest Gump gets a hard time in this exchange).
Then, with the thump of a really big earthquake, the end arrives, and a hardy band of survivors barricade themselves inside, using Franco's modern art collection ? including a giant penis sculpture ? to secure the windows.
They're joined by Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), who brings a mean streak to the general crudity: His exchange with Franco about masturbation has that unique combination of vulgarity and aggression that has become the signature of the contemporary young man's comedy. It's not funny as much as it is relentless.
Still, you can almost hear Rogen and Goldberg cackling over the barriers they've knocked down. The movie counts on it being funnier because Franco and McBride are playing themselves, and strangely it is, in the same way that we laugh when Hill begins a prayer by saying to God, "It's me, Jonah Hill. From Moneyball."
Similarly, everyone is one step away from whatever reality the film pretends to be frightening us with: It's a summer camp production by a bunch of old friends, plus a commentary on apocalyptic movies that stops at several intervals to insert whatever penis jokes it can find in the end of days. There is a surprisingly rich assortment.
They further amuse themselves with a pretend sequel to Pineapple Express that has nothing much to do with this movie, which eventually spins off into scenes of a giant devil (with giant sexual equipment) and fiery snakes coming out of his back.
But it's part of the fun of This Is the End: movie stars horsing around and letting us watch. It's a giddy experience, even if you do get the sneaking suspicion that they seem to be enjoying themselves even more.
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: Three stars