This summer you can choose between two different comedies about a blokey bunch of mates having their drinking session interrupted by a fiery cataclysm. In July, there’s Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. But first out of the gate is its rambunctious American counterpart, This is the End, which stars Seth Rogen and various other familiar faces from Judd Apatow’s repertory company.
Its big idea – some might say its only idea – is that the actors are playing themselves. (Whether they’ve ever actually played anything else is another matter.) They’re all at a party at James Franco’s Hollywood mansion when the earth starts to shake, and the other guests – including Rihanna and a coke-snorting Michael Cera – are either sucked into gaping holes in the ground or pulled up to the sky by beams of heavenly blue light. Rogen and his pals react in the only way they know: they barricade themselves inside the house and argue over which of them gets to eat the last Milky Way.
And that’s about it for the next half-hour. The central third of the film consists of Rogen, Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson wandering around and bickering, the gag being that they’re more concerned by their supply of drugs and porn, and by the question of whether they should make a sequel to Pineapple Express, than they are by the apocalypse going on outside.
To be fair, their good-natured self-parodying does prompt a few guilty giggles. And despite being little more than a larky home movie with big-budget special effects, This is the End is more disciplined than some of the films that Rogen and chums have starred in. But it would have been a lot better if it had been bolder. For all their dope-smoking, none of the actors risks showing himself in too unflattering a light. Nor does the film make anything of its most daring comic concept: the annoyance of being Jewish and being confronted by a Christian Judgement Day. This is the End raises that notion, but immediately concedes that the Book of Revelation was right all along. This is one foul-mouthed, genitalia-obsessed stoner comedy that should go down well in the Bible Belt.
A rather more high-minded enterprise, The East is a coolly intellectual espionage drama (to call it a thriller would be pushing it) starring and co-written by Brit Marling, who was also behind Sound of my Voice and Another Earth. Marling plays an ambitious former FBI agent who now works for a private intelligence firm in Washington DC. When her boss, the wonderfully frosty Patricia Clarkson, gives her the job of infiltrating an anarchist collective, Marling puts on some Birkenstocks, dyes her hair, and goes to live in a backwoods squat with the crusty likes of Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell. Her new associates favour direct action against the CEOs of eco-unfriendly corporations, so Marling has to decide whether or not to join in as they terrorise America’s one-percenters. It’s a decision that’s complicated when the group’s leader trims his shaggy hair and beard to reveal the chiselled features of Alexander Skarsgard.
Compared to most secret-agent films, The East seems hugely laudable: it has more ideas, more cunning spycraft, and more interest in real-world issues than all four Mission: Impossible episodes put together. But it isn’t all that engaging. Characters in Marling’s films tend to be remote, humourless stiffs, and in The East, true to form, they’re all so wafty and precious that their protests would be more likely to involve conceptual mime than guerilla warfare.
Romance is on the rocks for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reunited in Before Midnight, a tender trilogy closer (or is it?) from Richard Linklater. And Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami heads to Japan for the enigmatic miniature Like Someone in Love.
NEXT WEEK Sofia Coppola looks inside The Bling Ring