The apocalyptic satire “This Is the End” was made for admirers of Seth Rogen and James Franco, who, the movie suggests, may be their own biggest fans. An alternately sly and wildly indulgent exercise in omni-referential humor, “This Is the End” is accidently true to its title: As both homage and send-up, it presents viewers with the ultra-meta image of a comedy genre eating its own tail.
That genre, for the uninitiated, has been perfected by Rogen and Franco — along with “End” co-stars Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride — in films that brim with marijuana-fueled disquisitions, sophomoric sex jokes, graphic gross-outs and generous dollops of gratuitous violence. The epitome of the form was the 2008 stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express,” which set out to prove that “stoner” and “action” aren’t mutually exclusive, but which instead nearly obliterated its exhilaratingly unhinged portrait of pot-obsessed layabouts with a third act that exemplified overkill in every sense of the word.
Those same excesses come into play in “This Is the End,” which Rogen co-wrote with “Pineapple Express” writer Evan Goldberg, here making a game if uneven directorial debut. As the film opens, Baruchel is just landing in Los Angeles for a visit with best friend Rogen, who promptly lays out a welcome feast of weed, soda, Starbursts and 3-D TV. The premise of “This Is the End” is that everyone is playing themselves — a bunch of over-privileged young actors bro-ing out in L.A. when a sudden spate of earthquakes, fires and mysterious disappearances sends them into a panicked scrum of survivalist hoarding and eschatological speculation.
Most of the action takes place in Franco’s modernist bunker of a home, which he has decorated with his own paintings and where he stores props from his previous films, including the video recorder from “127 Hours.” Thanks to that piece of serendipity, the men film themselves, “Blair Witch”-style, as the social order begins to break down and friendships suffer near-homicidal strain. One of the best scenes is the setup itself, when Rogen drags Baruchel to Franco’s bacchanalian housewarming party, where a gaggle of cameo performers plays hilariously against type (yes, Michael Cera, we’re looking at you). One of the running gags of “This Is the End” is that Baruchel can’t stand Rogen’s friends, especially Hill, whose angelically doughy face and wide-eyed sincerity undergo a dramatic reversal in a sequence that playfully genuflects toward both “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The degree to which viewers enjoy “This Is the End” depends entirely on the degree to which they enjoy watching Rogen, Franco and their cohorts riff, bounce off and diss one another, often with the most unsavory sexual references at their disposal. (One particularly unseemly scene, between Franco and McBride, might have been funny for a minute but goes on far too long; another episode involving Emma Watson is similarly overplayed.)
Those improvisatory interludes often produce observantly absurdist humor, but they can also fall as flat as Robinson singing the line “Take yo’ panties off” for the upteenth time (in case you miss the humor, it’s also printed on his T-shirt). “This Is the End” is such a scattershot, tonally unfocused grab bag — one minute the guys are playing soccer with a man’s bloody head, the next they’re making an antic DIY version of “Pineapple Express II” — that it virtually defies synopsis, let alone neat categorization.
But beneath the gore, goofiness and anxiety posing as raunchy bravado, “This Is the End” actually possesses a genuine if simplistic point about actorly narcissism and spiritual bankruptcy. Franco is particularly self-lacerating, going along good-naturedly as his recent avant-garde pretensions and teasingly ambiguous sexual identity become punch lines. (Past flops are also fair game, whether the universally loathed misfire “Your Highness” or Rogen’s flat-line version of “The Green Hornet.”) There’s even a moment — around the time Franco compares the Holy Trinity to Neapolitan ice cream — when “This Is the End” promises to lift viewers into flights of genuinely clever pop culture critique.
But then the movie crashes back to earth with another coarse, over-long scene that at least has the benefit of finally paying off on a long-promised cameo. Propelled as it is by these live-action inside jokes, “This Is the End” can’t help but end on an anti-climactic note — in this case another party scene that, for all its soaring ambition, can’t really compare with that decadent throw-down back at Franco’s. Rogen and his friends may have set out to celebrate virtue at its uneasiest, but they’re clearly still most at home with earthly delights.
(107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive profanity, drug use and some violence.