This Is The End (2013)

★★★

Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen

Release Date: June 12th (US); June 28th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy

Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a pick-n-mix group of inherently comedic actors and Rihanna could converge together to play themselves effectively. Not on purpose, anyway. The concept is harnessed too tightly before it’s even able to leap from the screen; in a peculiar dynamic, the only genre truly capable of housing said character-actor flip-flopping is the comedy genre, because the gimmick of self-depiction is supposed to a funny one. But there’s a problem. This Is The End runs into a brick wall of indifference built by past humorous undertakings from the tongues of its cast: Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and company are playing the same characters that they always do, and the fact that these personifications happen to be extensions of their own selves is irrelevant. Though, once the failed gimmick attempt is established as a misfire, the film is able to advance as a fairly solid profanity-laced comedy. The only real happenstance of ingenuity here is, well… this is the end.

Jay Baruchel arrives at Seth Rogen’s serviceably plush residence in Los Angeles hoping to spend some time with his Hollywood buddy. It doesn’t take long for the Hollywood norm to encroach in their affairs though, as the pair receive an invite to James Franco’s housewarming party a dash up the hill. This is too bad for Jay who hates back-patting social gathers and isn’t all that fond of many expected guests, namely Jonah Hill. However, before the duo can settle in to their raucous surroundings (or in Jay’s case, get uncomfortable) an enormous earthquake sends shudders through the ego-mansion, leaving Jay, Seth, Jonah, James and pals stranded in the midst of a fiery apocalypse. And not even Emma Watson is exempt.

Paraded as a depiction of real actors, or ‘celebrities’, fraught and bumbling as their world collapsing in front of them — almost as if self-cleansing — the film doesn’t click. Primarily because those on screen are the foul-mouthed, comically-obnoxious and quip-firing knuckleheads of recent past. We’re not seeing Jonah Hill, we’re seeing Schmidt from 21 Jump Street. Seth Rogen isn’t playing Seth Rogen, he’s playing Ben Stone from Knocked Up. Nick from Hot Tub Time Machine makes an appearance, not Craig Robinson. And that ain’t really James Franco, it’s Pineapple Express’ Saul Silver. Essentially, each of these aforementioned characters — including those present in This Is The End — are all amplifications of the actors portraying them. Therefore the gimmick presented doesn’t stand out as inventive or extra-funny in this instance because we’ve seen it numerous times before.

In fact the only time it does work is when Emma Watson is on screen. The lovely lass whose wand waving skills and crisp pronunciations in Harry Potter have envisaged an image built on pleasantries, turns into a sweary and aggressive pit bull. The Emma Watson here is an exaggerated version — or not — of the widely held self-endorsing, peer-adulating celebrity perception. It’s not actually Emma Watson, and it’s never intended to be Emma Watson (I can’t imagine too much weapon wielding goes on in her life, though I’ve been wrong before). Unfortunately, this nuance collides head on with the presentation of the others as their real selves. Clinging to the rubble and remains of a crumbling ‘it’s actually us’ mantra, the film relentlessly takes pot shots at the idea that famous folk cannot work their way out of a paper bag without external aid. Again, the aforementioned stodgy dynamic on display does consume all and thus this approach struggles to come off as planned, but that’s not to say the film isn’t funny. Because it is; often giggle-worthy, periodically laugh-out-loud.

After meandering through an auspicious beginning, directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen realign the camera with the focus on funny, as opposed to a crippled narrative gadget. Light does occasionally seep through this otherwise irreparable artifice, with James Franco’s on screen manifestation proving the most successful of the bunch, certainly within the context of real-life satire. He projects himself as an art mogul — a trait not far off the mark if Comedy Central’s Roast of James Franco is anything to go by — and his magnified pompous demeanour feels the brunt of many a gag (“This place is like a piece of me”). Intentional momentary lapses in arty bravado are just as humorous too, such as his vociferous defence of solitary right to a Milky Way. Whereas Franco’s snob is alienating but not offensive, Jonah Hill’s hollow delivery sees his character assume a position above the others. A condescending Hill oils his excellent comedy chops, evoking the sole deadpan tone amongst a rabble of manic jesters. These remaining hoaxers are serviceable: Jay Baruchel is the only normal bloke, and suffers a tad; Seth Rogen is his usual drug-driven self; Danny McBride bellows obscenities like there’s no tomorrow (to be fair, there isn’t); and Craig Robinson is the cowardly squealer-cum-good. Sound familiar?

On a final humour-related note, as far as camp comedy goes the final scene delivers in abundance. It’s the best part of an outing that bats decent gags throughout, ardently dancing far away in the distance atop the league table of hilarity.

This Is The End seeks jaw-aching victory through a narrative ploy that is prematurely shackled by the jaws of defeat. Besides, self-humiliation isn’t too admirable given that the chaps on screen have constructed comedic careers above such a ridiculing foundation. Despite these grand shortcomings, the film delivers almost consistently in the gag-realm and sort of has its heart in the right place. Given the hilariously absurd finale, you’ll probably leave not really caring about the rest anyway.

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.