You could sit through a year's worth of Hollywood comedies and still not see anything that's genuinely knock-your-socks-off audacious. But This Is the End (opening June 12) truly is. It's the wildest screen comedy in a long time, and also the smartest, the most fearlessly inspired, and the snort-out-loud funniest. The movie opens with Seth Rogen at an airport, where a passerby says, ''Hey, Seth Rogen, what up, man?'' So you immediately know that he's going to be playing a version of himself. In fact, everyone in the film is playing a version of him-or herself. Rogen picks up his buddy Jay Baruchel (who's less of a star than anyone here a running gag), and after getting stoned, they head to a party at James Franco's house. Everyone from Jonah Hill to Emma Watson is there, and what transpires looks so much like what you'd expect a party with hip young actors and comedians to look like that it's as if we'd wandered into the ultimate episode of Entourage. The jockeying of movie-star egos, the drugs and sex (Michael Cera is the group's libertine nerd), Rogen and Franco brainstorming a sequel to Pineapple Express it's all cheekily plausible.
Then Rogen and Baruchel venture out to a convenience store to feed their munchies, and they hear a crack, and blue light pours down from the heavens. It's not just an earthquake it's the Rapture. The world is coming to an end! The two hustle back to the party, where most of the guests flee (or try to), and before long there are only five of them left in that house: Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, and Craig Robinson. For a moment, I feared that This Is the End might be a stunt that wears out its welcome in 10 minutes. But Rogen, who co-wrote and codirected the film with Evan Goldberg, does something incredibly sly. The movie doesn't play the end of days for laughs. It's an honest-to-God metaphysical disaster movie, a fusion of Earthquake, 2012, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist. With the apocalypse played straight, the comedy can take off from it in a way that's all the more explosive, as it was in the fantastic Shaun of the Dead.
Sinkholes are sucking people into infernos, but inside Franco's house, the movie-star self-absorption gets raised to an insane new pitch of competitive backbiting. The interplay is so fast and obscene that you feel like you're eavesdropping on the sorts of things comedians say to each other when they're off camera. Then Danny McBride shows up, tossing insults like cherry bombs, and the hilarity just grows more scandalous. This Is the End pushes the envelope a severed head becomes a soccer ball, and Franco and McBride turn a fight about masturbation into a confessional laugh riot. Yet through it all, the movie is wonderfully deadpan about the ''reality'' it's showing us. Is Jonah Hill really a narcissist who wears his nice-guy facade like the diamond stud in his ear? Is Rogen really a guilty sellout? This Is the End has great fun tweaking their public images, even as it's truly asking: Do people like this deserve to go to heaven or hell? The answer will crack you up and lift you up high. A