Friday 28 June 2013

Insiders: "This Is The End" and "Despicable Me 2" (ST 30/06/13)

This is the End (15) 107 mins ***
Despicable Me 2 (U) 98 mins ***

With the intervention of the guru-like Judd Apatow, American screen comedy has of late attempted to mount visions somewhat grander than might be inherent in the average fart or knob gag. This is the End has plenty of the latter, but tells them within the context of the apocalypse; its USP is that it observes this meltdown from the vantage of James Franco’s none-more-modernist Hollywood retreat. Franco is among several comic luminaries playing versions of themselves, and the film thumbnails exactly what one imagines these guys do between shoots: they party, get stoned, sit around chowing down burgers or ragging on one another’s movies.

It’s meant to be an eye-opener. Franco fails to impress Seth Rogen with his art nous. The bearded, bloated Danny McBride, modern comedy’s go-to partycrasher, tests everyone’s patience. One surprise is seeing Michael Cera, meek cherub of Juno, repositioned as a coke-snorting bottom-grabber. Then the ground opens up, the fireballs plummet, and This is the End blows its one truly inspired gag: how quickly these over-privileged whiners return to scattering pop-culture references. As Jonah Hill frames it: “Just because a bunch of people fell into a hole outside, it doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.”

A lot here depends on the kind of fun you want to have. The film is written and directed by Rogen with Evan Goldberg, and like the pair’s previous screenwriting output – Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet – it has two modes, funny and noisy, with nothing in between. Granted, this pair are sweet and often perceptive on male group dynamics. It was smart to enlist the likable, bookish Jay Baruchel to play an outsider amid these kidult millionaires, nudging us past any lurking smugness; Hill’s attempts to snuggle up to him constitute one reliably amusing throughline.

Yet the second half is a string of missed or muffled opportunities, right through to a punchline that won’t mean a thing to anyone who wasn’t 14 years old in 1997. Hill has a nice bit when trying to ingratiate himself to God as “Jonah Hill, from Moneyball”, but any subtler ripples of status anxiety – such as TV’s magnificently meta Larry Sanders and Louie delighted in – get drowned out by clumsy stoner business, shouted masturbation riffs, and gory gross-out where the threat is immediately neutralised by the abiding quotation marks. Not even the Rapture can shake the modern American comedy from its skittishness.

Or, indeed, its casual disregard for women: Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are tossed into the pit early on, leaving Emma Watson to provide the cue for an extended rape joke, and Lindsay Lohan’s honour to be besmirched in another conversational throwaway. This apocalypse isn’t a nightmare so much as the ultimate bromantic fantasy, one in which – with the removal of anything to be responsible about – the boys are free to bicker, banter, and bed down together. Despite the whiff of stale socks and species extinction this carries, everybody’s holding onto it until the very end.

Those few American comedians absent from This is the End return among the voice cast of Despicable Me 2. 2010’s original charted the redemption of Steve Carell’s Slavic supervillain Gru, raising the question of where any sequel might go. The answer, apparently, is indoors, sending the newly assimilated Gru undercover on spy business into the so-called “Paradise Mall”. Such a location is beyond satire for studio product like this: it’s the kind of bright, shiny consumerist utopia most cinemagoers will find themselves sitting in while watching Despicable Me 2. Yet it’s a paradise that will be threatened by suspect Mexican and Asian interests, who co-opt the workforce (turning Gru’s yellow-bellied minions purplish-Red) before eventually threatening Gru’s family. As 3D-enhanced summer holiday distraction, it’s about passable. As a paranoid vision of America, it’s remarkable.

This Is The End and Despicable Me 2 are in cinemas nationwide.

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