If celebrities are our modern-day mythic gods, then This Is the End is their Ragnarok, offering a chance to see stars confront a Biblical apocalypse in the midst of their own passive-aggressive squabbling. Built on the simple premise that watching actors playing themselves as they face down catastrophe is inherently more entertaining than watching regular Joes do the same, the film ends up less as a spoof on the disaster genre than a high-concept comedic version of the summer tent-pole film, using its big names and flashy effects as bait for what's an otherwise middling comedy, its unrepentant vulgarity wrapped around the usual gooey emotional center.
Things start off quietly, with Jay Baruchel visiting old bud Seth Rogen at his new L.A. home, where the two settle in for an juvenile sleepover-style weekend of bad food and good weed. Rogen interrupts the festivities to drag his friend to James Franco's housewarming, an invitation at which proud out-of-towner Baruchel balks. This iteration of Baruchel—possibly serving as a stand-in for Rogen's silent partner and co-director, Evan Goldberg—feels uncomfortable with the Hollywood lifestyle, given its star-studded fakery and endless ass-kissing, a reaction that's partially a defense mechanism, as it covers up his anxiety and lack of ambition. Yet it's not hard to see his point in the movie's blowout party scene, where he's forced to contend with a whole battery of stars behaving badly, from an unconvincingly sleazy Michael Cera to a dangerously clumsy Paul Rudd.
This whole scenario feels a little cheap—an occasion for lazy, self-serving jokes—and also somewhat disingenuous, especially since the parade-of-stars angle ends up being a huge tease. The abrupt party scene is quickly interrupted by a cataclysmic rain of fire, culminating with a giant hellmouth opening up in front of Franco's house, swallowing most of the revelers inside and drastically slowing the film's pace. The rest of This Is the End functions as a surprisingly basic chamber drama, with principal leads Rogen, Baruchel, and Franco barred inside the house with Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson as they hoard food supplies and fight over water and sleeping arrangements. Despite some throwaway jokes about celebrity, the whole thing quickly begins to feel like a gimmick, trading on pre-established personalities and generalized ideas of Hollywood excess, when most of these discussions and problems could pertain to any group of thirtysomething males faced with the imminent end of the world.
The sight of these five friends verbally and physically sparring has its pleasures, but the hang-out vibe also feeds into This Is the End's overall sense of complacent lethargy, despite some sharp set pieces and crudely funny banter. Even the best gags come as a consequence of amplifications of familiar personalities, namely Danny McBride as a swaggering ass on par with his Eastbound and Down avatar. There's something to be said for pushing outside the narrow confines of the modern comedy, which Rogen and Goldberg did to greater effect in the much tighter, much more subversive Pineapple Express, but here the high-concept theatrics begin to feel like a crutch. Given the complicated scenario and the clearly sizable budget afforded, it's also disheartening that, despite some half-hearted overtures toward shifting the comedy paradigm, the filmmakers make little attempt to expand their comedic palette, sticking to the same old menu of pot and dick jokes, with some gore sprinkled in to rattle nervous laughter out of an increasingly hard-to-shock audience.
Most of this nastiness runs counter to the film's otherwise sweet message, which basically boils down to "be nice." It's an idea that gets more play as the heavenly mechanics behind the film's apocalyptic scenario come to light, and as the tension mounts between the flashy L.A. contingent and Baruchel's low-key Canadian lifestyle, which positions him as the movie's version of an unassuming small-town rube. The idea that many Americans would love to see Hollywood burn as a modern Sodom because actors aren't nice people is a bizarrely misguided notion, but the film's core plea for civility ends up offering a rare insight into the filmmakers' fears about how their lifestyles are perceived. All this inherent insecurity and anxious dithering contributes to This Is the End's continued toothlessness, but that same gentle softness is also useful, assuring that the film remains a serviceably amusing, if unambitious, comedy, despite its crass, blinkered worldview.