The "Hangover" movies, even the third one no one defends, barely qualify as comedies in the traditional sense. They're more like grimy action pictures with a joke or two tossed in to avoid the charge of false labeling. Their ugliness of spirit compounds a disinterest in verbal jokes and a reliance on brutality (which isn't the same as artfully violent slapstick), and nobody involved seems to care about making the talk snappy or keeping a scene moving forward. Whatever. They're hits. The public hath spoken, even as the public groweth weary.
"The Is the End" is a different story — outrageous-plus, but often hilarious. I could pre-write some of the protest emails I'll be getting and save some of us some trouble. But that wouldn't be a free and fair exchange of opinions.
Co-writers and co-directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have acknowledged their surprise in getting away with an R instead of an NC-17, given the movie's most out-there and in-there sexual sight gags, along with some excessively gory details (Michael Cera impaled by a street light, but coming up with a zinger regardless). "Ludicrous," Goldberg told the Los Angeles Times regarding the Motion Picture Association of America's oh-whatever decision to give it an R without cuts. Rogen added, "Insanely, (we) didn't have a ratings issue."
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But you know? The thing really moves. Even the grottiest bits have a way of hitting their marks and darting onward, the way they did in "Borat." This apocalyptic lark, an extended bull session among various highly competitive comedians trying to be nice to each other under extreme pressure, barely holds together as a movie. The central joke — Rogen, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, et al., playing pretend versions of themselves, the way Bill Murray did in "Zombieland" — is nothing new. Yet the best of the foul-mouthed byplay sounds improvised on the spot. At one point, James Franco gets into it with Danny McBride, also playing himself, in an escalating dispute regarding the loutish "Your Highness" star's selfish mishandling of a porno magazine, and the taunts are so relentless and stupid, you're initially astonished at how long the scene's allowed to play out. Then it keeps going, and the cutaways and the pacing actually make the effrontery funnier. I predict walkouts across America during "This Is the End," along with a healthy number of satisfied, vaguely guilty-feeling customers who go along for the ride.
It helps to have sweet-natured Jay Baruchel at the center. He's our adenoidal stoner 21st century edition of Don Knotts, and his golden-arches eyebrows, suspended in permanent alarm, are the perfect accessories for an End-of-Days first responder. Like everybody else in "This Is the End," he plays a version of himself. Rogen has invited his old pal and fellow Canadian down to LA; he and Baruchel waste a few hours getting high and gaming, and then Rogen gives the insecure, paranoid Baruchel the bad news. They've been invited to Franco's party, where lots of fellow comic actors and comedians will be in attendance, including Hill, whom Baruchel is convinced detests him. No less than Judd Apatow's "Funny People," "This Is the End" speaks a lot of truth about the way comics joke around, or don't, in each other's company, even before people start dying.
Bailing on Franco's party (where Cera, that nice kid from "Juno," turns out to be a gross-out skeeze on the order of Neil Patrick Harris' portrayal of Neil Patrick Harris in the "Harold & Kumar" comedies), Baruchel and Rogen run down the street for some snacks, and suddenly biblical-scale destruction and mayhem surround them: Fellow citizens get sucked up into the sky, the Hollywood Hills are in flames and a massive sinkhole leading to a fiery pit of lava appears on Franco's lawn, gobbling up party guests with impunity. For a good while, "This Is the End" spins a variation on "Panic Room," with Franco hunkering down with Rogen, Baruchel, Robinson and Hill inside Franco's modernist fortress. ("Designed it myself," brags the actor/writer/director/Renaissance dude.) They squabble about the rations, meet up with the occasional intruder. Emma Watson, as herself, drops in and then takes off because she doesn't like the "rapey vibe" of the situation. (If I never hear another rape joke, especially in the context of a male-centric ensemble comedy, I'll be fine.)
This is the sort of comedy wherein someone yells, "Someone throw me a knife!" and even if you know where the gag is going, it arrives a half-second sooner than expected.
The audience-identification figure is Baruchel, who (like the film itself) greets the End of Days developments with a reasonable amount of deadpan seriousness. The movie's an expansion of a nine-minute short film Rogen and Goldberg made six years ago called "Seth and Jay Versus the Apocalypse." Unlike so many Hollywood comedies, this one isn't squashed by the size of its budget or its digital effects. It's a one-joke movie, full of smug, blase comic figures poking fun at their own limited resources of courage and grace under pressure. But sometimes one joke is enough.
'This Is the End' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence)
Running time: 1:47