A few years ago, a backlash seemed to be forming against Seth Rogen. Soon after his breakout role in Knocked Up, it seemed like you couldn't get away from him, his weird laugh, and the immature man-boy type of humor that he embodied. Couple that with underwhelming box office grosses and negative reviews for films like Pineapple Express, Observe and Report, and The Green Hornet, and it seemed like a lot of America was ready to write off the burly Jewish Canadian with the booming voice and look for their laughs elsewhere.
But then something interesting happened. Pineapple Express and Observe and Report (to a lesser degree) found their audiences and became cult favorites. While failing to spawn a franchise, The Green Hornet ended up making enough money overseas to put it safely in the black. And Rogen, along with his childhood friend and writing partner Evan Goldberg, continued writing and making movies whose small budgets allowed them to work with their friends and avoid the scrutiny and high expectations of studio executives. The result has been a string of solid films that show the development of a unique comedic style and sensibility, and Rogen and Goldberg's new film This Is the End shows that this kind of humor can even be successfully applied to characters who are literally facing the end of the world. Watch my ReThink Review of This Is the End below (transcript following).
In 2005, The 40-Year-Old Virgin ushered in the Apatow comedy era, where writer/director/producer Judd Apatow and his crew made a new generation of sweet yet proudly immature comedies about dick-obsessed man-boys deepening their friendships while attempting or refusing to grow up. But with Apatow now seemingly more interested in making overly-long movies about the pressures and regrets of adulthood, Apatow crewmember Seth Rogen and his writing, directing, and producing partner Evan Goldberg have led a splinter faction to continue flying the flag for weed, dick, and fart jokes. And their latest film, the apocalypse comedy This Is the End, shows that not only have they found a winning formula, but have developed a style of humor along with their funny friends that's close to becoming its own genre.
In This Is the End, Rogen and a few dozen of his Hollywood buddies play themselves as they attend a party at James Franco's house. Rogen is trying to be a good host to his friend and fellow actor Jay Baruchel who's visiting from Canada and doesn't enjoy the Hollywood scene, when people suddenly start being sucked into the sky through beams of light. With the Los Angeles area besieged by earthquakes, fires, sinkholes, and even demons, it appears that the Biblical apocalypse is actually happening. Rogen, Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride barricade themselves inside Franco's house as they try to figure out what's happening, what they'll do next, and whether they and their friendships will survive it.
Like many of Apatow's films and Kevin Smith's before them, at the heart of This Is the End and other Rogen/Goldberg films is the deep bromantic friendship that can exist between guys and the fear of losing it. In this case, it's the friendship between Rogen and Baruchel, with Baruchel worrying that he's losing his friend to Hollywood life. Actually, my favorite parts of This Is the End were the scenes between Baruchel and Rogen early in the film before the apocalypse starts, with Baruchel feeling out of place and struggling to reconnect with Rogen amidst the weirdness of celebrity culture.
But that's not to say there isn't a steady stream of laughs in This Is the End, hitting them at a pace that makes it probably the funniest movie of the year so far. But it's a type of laugh that you don't find in most movies and that Rogen and Goldberg seem to be perfecting, the type of laugh that doesn't come from slapstick, sight gags, cringey awkwardness, or finely-crafted jokes, but from the interactions between the characters and the immature, petty, and odd ways they discuss and deal with life's difficulties, including the end of the world. It's very much a team approach where everyone contributes, a lot like hanging out with a bunch of funny friends, where you're laughing a lot, but at things that are so situational and built on the rhythm and chemistry of the group that you could be laughing the whole time, but still be unable to explain to someone else why it was so funny.
Of course, there are plenty of broader jokes in This Is the End, many built on the characters' cowardice, their fear or comfort with possibly seeming gay, or their mockery of their past films or their own celebrity personas. But by continuing to work with their friends and make movies cheaply enough that studios don't balk at their R-rated humor, it seems like Rogen and Goldberg are really on to something and could continue making these types of movies for a long time to come. And considering how funny and diverse their films have been, from all-out stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, sweet and hilarious indies like my favorite comedy of 2011 Goon, to more serious fare like the cancer dramedy 50/50, I think that would be a great thing for American comedy.