(On Cable TV, January 2014) Now being comfortably in my late thirties, there’s a limit to the amount of amusement I can get from rough frat-boy humor, with its soft-drugs and penile references in-between copious swearing. Still, This is the End knows exactly what kind of laughs it wants to get, and it’s successful at what it does. The focus on the nature of young adult friendships in the face of trying circumstances may not be new (Seth Rogen alone has mined it for the past decade since Superbad) but it adds a little bit more substance to what would otherwise be a juvenile festival of phallic jokes, scatological references and drug humor. This is the End, by its very nature (six actors playing exaggerated version of themselves as the world around them is consumed by a biblical apocalypse) is intensely self-referential, and the corpus of movies and celebrity gossip you have to know before getting the most out of this one is lengthy –it’s best if you have a working knowledge of the live and films of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny MacBride, along with a passing familiarity with Michael Cena, Emma Watson, Rihanna and the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Sort of a silly Hollywood home movie writ large, This is the End still manages to get a few laughs and chuckles: Evan Goldberg’s direction is self-assured, there’s a sense that there are no self-imposed limits to the comedy, and the ensemble cast is simply remarkable, both for its presence but also for the lengths at which the performers will go in order to spoof their own screen persona and get their laughs. It also has the decency to end on a very high note, wrapping up a film that compensates for its own worst excesses. The result may not be particularly refined or subtle (although there is at least one laugh-aloud implicit joke when we realize that the heavenly rapture has passed by without claiming a single Hollywood partygoer), but This is the End has the strength of its own immaturity.
(In theaters, August 2011) As a criminal comedy, there are a lot of similarities between this and Pineapple Express. Not only does Danny McBride has a prominent role in the two movies, but both are criminal comedies starring underperforming slackers in the lead roles. Here, a pizza delivery guy in his twenties is kidnapped by two other slackers, put in an explosive vest and told he’s got no other choice by go rob a bank. What follows is a quick 80-minutes tale of criminal stupidity and plucky heroes. Forget about social commentary, wholesome family entertainment or mind-expanding revelations: It’s pure comic character work set within a thriller template. Despite the film’s similarities to the Brian Douglas Wells criminal case, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t claim to be based on a true story, and fortunately doesn’t try to remind aware audiences of the real-life drama. Jesse Eisenberg is a bit more tolerable than you’d expect as the lead, but it’s really Aziz Ansari and Michael Peña who steal the show in enjoyable supporting performance. The script is peppered by high-energy moments –including a car chase that plays with the conventions of the genre and a quick ending that’s over almost before we know it. The humour to too crude to be fully enjoyable, the violence is too gory to be forgettable and the rhythm is inconsistent, but 30 Minutes or Less still manages to score a few hits, and the tone is just controlled enough to avoid the exasperating immaturity of, say, Pineapple Express. While it’s a step down for Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, it’s nonetheless an acceptable summertime crime comedy.
(In theaters, April 2011) I was pretty sure I would loathe this film: After all, I really didn’t care for Pineapple Express, and this follow-up seemed to be heading for the same coarse stoner humour. But I had forgotten that I dislike bad self-important heroic fantasy even more than I don’t care for stoner fantasy. So that’s how I end up feeling relatively warm regarding Your Highness, which seems happy stuffing drugs, profanity and coarseness into a bog-standard fantasy premise. It works better than anyone would expect, in no small part because the framework of the film itself works fine, and it features decent set-pieces (a coach pursuit action sequence more than holds its own when stripped of comic elements). Otherwise, we get a deeply reluctant hero, a perverted mage, pervasive swearing, nudity, crudity and far too much gore for what’s supposed to be a light-hearted film. (As with Pineapple Express, there’s a feeling that a film as juvenile as Your Highness doesn’t actually deserve the level of gore that it features.) As a comedy operating at the edge of good taste, You Highness often over steps into material that goes beyond humour and into bad taste, hitting sexism, homophobia, immaturity and lameness along the way. Danny McBride bears the brunt of the film’s humour as the foul-mouthed cowardly protagonist while James Franco is fine as the always-smiling hero, whereas neither Natalie Portman nor Zooey Deschanel embarrass themselves through their performance –although, mind you, Portman is playing the straight-woman, while Deschanel doesn’t have much to do except being the classic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, it’s not much of a film for the ages (I suspect that seeing it at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse helped a bit in assessing the film above its true value), but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in the movie landscape: Given the cost of fantasy films in general and their inconsistent level of commercial success, it’s almost mind-boggling that anyone took enough chances on the concept to see the film through to completion. I suspect that Your Highness will appeal mainly to those who can’t take another ponderous high-fantasy film. It’s not much as itself, but as an antidote to worse films, it’s almost refreshing.