Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Pixar’s Soul was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other cinematic depictions of the afterlife.
Whether everyone in Hollywood is secretly an asshole has been a question pondered by gossip magazines, late-night TV shows, and blog blind items for decades. But Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut weighs in very loudly on the topic. In This Is The End, nearly every famous person is immediately established as a repellent jerk, and not even the promise of eternal paradise can inspire them to be better. “Guys, I think this is sort of bullshit, because we’re all good people!” James Franco insists when he and his fellow actors realize they’ve been left behind after the rapture. But the gap between cluelessness and godliness is vast, and This Is The End mines a good amount of nasty humor from lightly fictionalized versions of celebrities in increasingly depraved situations as they yearn for absolution.
A satirical look at the selfishness and vapidity of the A-list, This Is The End was praised for its profane audaciousness when it was released in 2013, and for an unexpectedly delightful Backstreet Boys cameo. But before Nick, Kevin, AJ, Howie, and Brian start crooning, the film establishes some messy relationships. Longtime friends Jay Baruchel and Rogen (both playing themselves, as almost everyone in the film does) are growing apart. To help salvage the relationship, Baruchel begrudgingly accompanies Rogen to a party at James Franco’s house. Then the rapture begins, the apocalypse follows, and the two find themselves left behind and holed up with Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and a party-crashing Danny McBride. Together, they realize that their drug use, masturbation, cursing, and all-around hedonism—which is to say, the essential components of their star personae—is a big part of what kept them out of heaven.
Settling into its single-location format, This Is The End amps up the ridiculous antics of these friends and frenemies, escalating the behaviors and quirks we already associate with the actors and incorporating inside jokes regarding their filmographies. The script simultaneously celebrates goofy camaraderie (the group puts on a low-budget production of Rogen’s idea for Pineapple Express 2) and mocks Hollywood narcissism. The seesaw between the two extremes also informs the film’s philosophical angle. If everyone were nicer to each other, could that get them into heaven? It’s the slightest of sacrifices, and yet no one in the group seems able to do it. To a certain degree, This Is The End is making a subversive point: Even the promise of heaven isn’t going to change some people, and that’s both the beauty and the trap of free will. “Fucking civilization is broken down. There’s no more reason for this false bullshit!” McBride insists, and he may have a point: If you’re going to hell anyway, why not be as self-indulgent as possible while you’re still able?
Some of the film’s humor hasn’t aged terribly well. Rape is a common punchline. And too often This Is The End defaults to gay jokes, rather than explore the fears and other feelings the guys might have. But the film’s enduring appeal lies in how it affirms the worst of what so many assume about celebrities, and then suggests that if they can turn it around, maybe we all can. For a movie that otherwise revels in its offensiveness, it’s a surprisingly hopeful, even Christian message, assuring its audience that everyone, even celebrities, has the capacity for change. Except for maybe Michael Cera.