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MOVIE REVIEW: 'This Is the End'

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L-r, James Franco, Emma Watson and Seth Rogan star in Columbia Pictures' "This Is The End," also starring Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson.

THIS IS THE END

(R)

3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Essentially getting its start with the 1980 movie "Airplane!" the disaster/horror-spoof genre has (in terms of box office take and level of quality) matched and oftentimes eclipsed the "serious" titles that inspired them. It's not all that hard to do; most of these bloated, self-important movies are just begging to be lampooned and ridiculed. What is very hard to do is to make a spoof or parody that is actually funny, scary, pointed with its sarcasm and clever. "This is the End" is the rare film that does it all while also managing to (dare it be said) get quasi-deep and metaphysical.

In addition to subverting horror and disaster, "End" also skewers with jagged relish the people starring in it. It makes no attempt to hide its disdain for the world's cult of personality obsession either. The five principal actors (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and James Franco) play themselves and do so without a safety net or hint of ego. They insult and pick on each other with frat-boy jabs that are based on their own past actions, behavioral quirks and professional shortcomings. This is amazing to see in a fictional live-action movie and should in no way be confused with the vaguely similar (mostly staged) TV reality shows with the words "Celebrity" or "Bachelor" in the title. It is more akin to what takes place on the filthier-than-filthy "Comedy Central" roasts.

You should know now -- if you haven't heard already -- the screenplay (penned by co-directors Rogen and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg) pushes the envelope beyond its breaking point and considers nothing too sacred, off-limits or taboo. It's rude, crude often vile, in bad taste and depraved -- some of the very same words once used to describe the early stand-up work of George Carlin, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.

What the filmmakers and the players recognize is that the difference between trash and art is all in the delivery, attitude and pitch of sarcasm. It is the fact that no character is free of guilt or at least some degree of selfishness that makes what they do and say not so much forgivable but understandable -- and to a great deal of the U.S. population, relatable. "End" is as much social/political/spiritual commentary as it is a celebration of idiot behavior and the effects of decision-making under life-threatening stress. Do you think you might act a tad differently than normal (read: desperate, wigged-out and ruthless) if you could die violently at any moment at the hands of people you consider to be friends?

Metaphors and parables aside, "End" takes the approach that if one joint is good, then 10 lines of coke with a fifth of Jack Daniel's as a chaser will be better. Where is it said that one movie can't have an earthquake with wildfires, a sinkhole to the center of Earth, cannibalism, a drunken blowout, and a clash between heaven and hell all going on at the same time? Is it really a wise idea to kill off in brutal fashion more than a dozen high-profile guest stars in the first 15 minutes? Why not? Most horror movies are thoroughly predictable and take forever to dole out death, and it is rarely ever carried off with the same level of wit, expediency or indiscriminant recklessness as it is here.

Even with the five leads (and a surprise, late-in-arriving sixth) playing themselves, the writers approach the story with some very basic, no-nonsense narrative guidelines. There is a lead, a villain, character arcs, twists galore and more social metaphors than you can count. It's hard to make something so outwardly stupid and depraved to have it eventually play out as so brilliant, life-affirming and, believe it or not, heartwarming. Never before has the devil looked so silly and heaven designed to look so hip. If anyone comes up with a better action/comedy this summer (or this year for that matter) than "This is the End," it will be thanks to nothing less than divine intervention. (Columbia)