From the peak of Anchorman to the nadir of Burt Wonderstone, the formula for studio comedies of the past twenty years has been simple: Dude acts like a dick for an hour, turns blandly sweet toward the end, and then everyone on the DVD commentary can claim to have made a movie about redemption. Since we like to forgive and we like to like the stars who make us laugh, this has proven profitable. But it's hampered the range of movie comedy. Even as the language has grown more flamboyantly obscene and exposed junk has become the new red-heart boxer shorts, the comic form itself has rarely been less anarchic. What bite could The Campaign have when we know that in the end, Will Ferrell's baby-punching, wife-poaching candidate will prove as apple-pie pure as a Capra Boy Scout?
Perhaps wrath-of-God hang-out flick This Is the End can kill redemption cold. A deeply nondenominational Left Behind rip, the film — written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the star's longtime writing partner — makes absurdly literal the prick-becomes-a-man plotting that has held sway since Billy Madison. Here, it's judgment day, and our shlubby everydudes (playing themselves, who aren't everydudes at all) are holed up for the apocalypse in James Franco's compound. After much violent misadventure, and even more talk of where it's appropriate to ejaculate, the lugs — including Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Franco — realize the obvious: Good people have already been raptured, and these guys haven't. If they want a happy ending, and not to be devoured by horizon-straddling hellbeasts with schoolbus-sized phalluses, they'll have to do the thing the heroes in lazy movie comedies always do: stop being dicks and give the universe a reason to love them. To Rogen and Goldberg's credit, this does seem parodic.
Whether they win that love, I'll leave to you. I laughed a lot, but this is one of those films where a list of its ingredients should tell you whether you'll find it delectable or poisonous. For all its Book of Revelation trappings, at heart it's a loose, hard-R comedy full of funny dudes running amok in a mansion, the jokes often just the dudes' scabrous one-upping of each other on MPAA-baiting topics that will seem outrageous to anyone who's never heard comedians or twelve-year-olds talk among themselves.
Still, at its best, which is often, the movie does try for more. The survival situations and dopey metaphysics are smartly worked out, and they, too, build to satisfying laughs, especially the gentler stuff, as when the boys all tuck in next to each other. There's even some affecting character work. Rogen and Baruchel's friendship gets tested, which naturally figures into that third-act turn toward godliness; surprisingly, that friendship comes to seem like something the rest of us should value, too, much like the one in Superbad, which Rogen and Goldberg also wrote.
Unlike too many comedies, This Is the End gets stronger as it goes, especially when the cosmic finish tasks its cast with bigger things than talking about jacking off. In fact, as Rogen and company strive for that grandest of all redemptions, the movie seems both a culmination of and an elegy for the comedies that have made them rich: Seriously, after going this far, both in raunchy bad-boyism and mock-apologetic love-us shamelessness, they've effectively blown up their own formula. That's not a bad thing. This is the end; now it's time to try for more.