Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s armageddon comedy This is the End feels strangely familiar in a world where celebrities are stuck in quarantine like the rest of us.
Who’d have guessed that This Is The End would be a perfect comedy for 2020? Before a certain point in the year, the movie was an enjoyably weird, high concept snapshot of mid-2010s celebrity culture. In one scene, Michael Cera blows coke into McLovin’s face! In another, David Krumholtz falls to his death! It was an Apatow crew meta-commentary on their own personas, a satire from a period before studios decided they’d rather gamble on mega-blockbusters than make mid-budget successes (like this one). But watching it in the context of the—as of this time of writing—current COVID-19 quarantine means parts of the script feel… strangely familiar.
Once the downright Biblical apocalypse is underway for the likes of Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen (all actors playing versions of themselves), they find that they can’t go outside. Where are they forced to isolate themselves? In James Franco’s house. Tensions heighten from being in the same place with the same people. The actors get a little weird separated from their usual privilege. (As Craig Robinson cries, “We actors! We soft as baby shit!”) Someone drinks urine as chaos ensues. Things are simultaneously terrifying and boring as hell.
Obviously, the Rapture hasn’t (yet) taken place, and there are still functioning governments here as of the time of writing. This Is the End was only released seven years ago, when the country was less overt about the madness of its inner workings and there wasn’t social distancing to render time meaningless.
And yet, Rogen and co-writer/co-writer Evan Goldberg accidentally prophesied a lot of the weird incidentals of the pandemic—how no one totally knows what’s happening, how going outside can be dangerous. Small issues blow up because unhealthy dynamics get far worse in cramped living situations. Tons of drugs, alcohol, gathering supplies, unstable behavior, masturbation—the jokes are pretty close to the “new normal” I’ve seen on my Twitter feed. They nailed not only how celebrity egoism would emerge in full force during an emergency, but also how that egoism would reflect a whole culture of narcissistic, individualist capitalism.
The cringey video featuring Gal Gadot and celeb friends mewing “Imagine” came out a day before I rewatched the movie. It’s a strange piece of work; no promises to help the newly unemployed or urges of solidarity or mutual aid with each other. These actors and musicians truly believed that they were so inherently wonderful, that they were so loved, that the sight of them singing John Lennon lyrics totally devoid of any context would be inherently comforting. Its pure neoliberal joy juice: rich famous people are a tonic for the rest of us.
That wildly hubristic clip, as well as Madonna creating pretentious, desperate Insta-posts of herself talking about the quarantine, were on my mind as the characters shot confessionals, desperate to perform in some way to an unblinking screen. That same self-absorption is in Jonah Hill’s declaration that helicopters will pick up important people like him and George Clooney (and maybe they’ll come back for Rogen and the like!)
Its pure neoliberal joy juice: rich famous people are a tonic for the rest of us.
Other scenes popped out to me, as Rogen and company creating a homemade Pineapple Express 2 trailer reminded me of trapped artists and musicians posting performance videos online from their homes. And what is Danny McBride here but the one mooching family member/roommate who makes everything worse?
This Is the End isn’t exactly taking the apocalypse seriously. It shouldn’t have to. The demons with giant phalluses and Channing Tatum in a gimp costume were never intended as a parallel to the urgent non-fiction situation currently unfolding. But somehow, the movie tapped into something about 2020: not just the mood of the moment, but how a crisis, any crisis, reveals who people really are.
The apocalypse merely exacerbates the problems between the actors (Danny’s selfishness, Jay and Seth’s distance as friends) until they have to confront them head-on. The same goes with the dawning comprehension that their sins have kept them back on Earth. (James Franco’s “confession” is, with hindsight and in light of his real-life behavior, pretty gross to say the least.)
What the movie understands is that a true apocalypse isn’t simply the end of the world. It’s a moral reckoning. That’s the concept of the Book of Revelation, and it still rings true across millennia. There are consequences to actions, even if it’s on a massive scale.
COVID-19 would have certainly infected some of the US population even if all precautions were taken, but it was the systemic neglect and neoliberal policies of the past four decades that contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. The coronavirus obviously isn’t divine retribution for capitalism but the growing sense that the virus has revealed the truth of how things really work here, and whom they work for, is palpable. Jonah’s sense of his own Importance is at work when actors casually reveal they’ve been tested for the virus before millions of citizens had a chance, the same causal belief that obviously they deserved to be treated better. The entire American economic system works according to a similar rationale.
This Is the End is fundamentally absurd, but it’s great at conjuring up a semi-serious, religious sense of dread right next to the sex jokes. It’s a movie where God is very real, as is his wrath, his forgiveness. That’s why it’s shockingly good at excavating the awful feeling that’s arisen during COVID-19, of awesome forces beyond our control maybe ensuring there is “normal” ever again. At least in the movie, Seth, Jay, and Craig redeem themselves and get to dance with the Backstreet Boys in heaven.
In our world and in fiction celebrities always win, but the rest of us are stuck at home, unsure when we can go to grocery stores again without face masks and gloves. So what do we get? We get rich famous actors singing “Imagine”; we get to have private healthcare. We get to work from home and stream This Is The End, hoping this isn’t the apocalypse we’ve seen play out in fantasy so many times and never up close.
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