3.5/5 stars

When actors play themselves in movies, the audience expects to see how different the character of the actor is from their preconceived notion of the actor— a sort of highly polished yet calculated version of TMZ. Seeing an actor play himself as the exact opposite of his public persona is often enough to get laughs; in fact, Neil Patrick Harris has built his entire career out of it, first shedding his former child-star image for laughs in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle then transitioning to bucking his established status as an openly gay family man by starring in “How I Met Your Mother,” where his character’s womanizing is his defining characteristic.

But this can only get you so far. The more sustainable alternative is to act as a slightly modified version of your persona, which, by providing people with an “inside look” of how an actor “really” is, can humanize the actor. Because it is (often unfairly) assumed that an actor’s style of humor defines how he acts as a person — I don’t expect Will Smith to act like any of his characters off set, but I can’t say the same about Will Ferrell — this is especially effective with comedic actors.

Which is why the fact that Seth Rogen is playing Seth Rogen and James Franco is playing James Franco is not always apparent in This Is the End, the first film directed by Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg, even though this is perhaps the movie’s main draw. When Jay Baruchel (played byBaruchel), in the opening scene, reunites with his old pal Rogen in Los Angeles, their banter wouldn’t be out of place in Knocked Up. This is not the fault of the actors, not even of their reputations for playing similar characters movie to movie — it’s just the way we expect comedic actors to behave.

This is a shame, as This Is the End’s statements and subversions of the idea of celebrity are the most enjoyable part of a pretty enjoyable film. Rogen, in an effort to integrate his friend into his Hollywood circles, invites a reluctant Baruchel to a party at Franco’s house. Franco’s pride in his self-designed property, a pseudo-intellectual’s idea of a cubist paradise, is one of many ways the celebrities not only inhabit their public personas (in Franco’s case, as the talented but pretentious would-be man of culture) but skewer them. At the party, the awkward Baruchel creates a self-imposed disconnect between himself and Rogen’s more successful friends (ironically, the only main cast member who has starred in a movie more successful than Baruchel’s How to Train Your Dragon is Franco), who include Jonah Hill (Hill), Craig Robinson (Robinson) and Rihanna (you get the point).

It is here where the titular End takes the lives of nearly everybody at the party — and there are a lot of people, the usual Apatow crew and beyond, at this party. A coke-throwing, debaucherous MichaelCera (playing against type so aggressively and so well that it may now give him a new type to be pigeonholed in) is impaled with and hoisted from a streetlight. A Veuve Cliequot-toting Paul Rudd accidentally steps onto a woman’s head. Aziz Ansari, Jason Segal, Mindy Kaling and nearly everyone else fall into a sinkhole. Only Baruchel, Rogen, Hill, Robinson, Franco and a party-crashing Danny McBride are left.

As much fun as a 106-minute party with all of that talent would be to watch, culling the herd gives the remaining actors enough room to wield their considerable talents. Rogen and Goldberg deserve credit for facilitating this by crafting a movie free of any impediments that would restrict or diminish the actors’ capabilities to do so. Yes, the overarching plot is ho-hum, there are some pacing issues and the pair don’t always end a scene on the right note. But the script itself isn’t afraid to sacrifice some coherence and cohesion to give the actors the chance to make us laugh. Does it make any sense for the surviving crew to film video confessionals with Franco’s camcorder from 127 Hours? It allows for a few killer jokes, so why does it have to?

If the best scenes are the ones where everything takes a step back to let the actors run wild — an altercation between Franco and McBride centered on ejaculation is a particular highlight — some of the more involved, more horror-focused set pieces, such as a chase sequence with a demonic dog and an exorcism, fall flat. But for every nonstarter of a concept, there are four or five concepts that land — the frenzied, soccer-ball-like kicking of a recently severed head, the drug-fuelled filming of a makeshift sequel to Pineapple Express, the ejaculation confrontation.

What’s most impressive about This Is the End, however, is that it doesn’t allow itself to coast on the talent of its stars, as so many other ensemble comedies tend to do. In the best type of works where actors play themselves — “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Being John Malkovich, the guests on “The Larry Sanders Show” — the characters possess flaws aggressive enough to undercut their inherent charisma and likeability. Apart from McBride, whose brand of Ferrell buffoonery is thoroughly grounded in being as much of an outsized lout as possible, each character possesses a more nuanced flaw, one that stems not from an internal vice or flaw but from the effects of Hollywood.

Hill, here the only main cast member to not conform to his usual comedic persona, acts with a facade of aggressive kindness that stems from his Oscar nomination and the expectations that go along with it, a facade that inevitably, if cleverly, breaks. Rogen, for all of his posturing to makeBaruchel feel included, sides with his Hollywood friends more often than not, even sending Baruchel off to the dangerous outside world. But Rogen gets no help from the self-immolating Baruchel, whose Los Angeles-outsider complex is shown to be both petty and exaggerated.

When changing this behavior begins to have serious implications, the actors recognize it after a while, and it is supported by over-the-top evidence (for example, Franco’s admission that he had sex with Lindsay Lohan, who thought he was Jake Gyllenhaal) that shows that they are hiding themselves from their more apparent character flaws. And in an ingenious move, the characters who ultimately redeem themselves do so in a way that still comes across as self-serving. It is a remarkable condemnation of Hollywood narcissism made more remarkable by coming from a group of Hollywood stars themselves.

There is humor to be found in playing yourself extraordinarily against type — Cera and, to a lesser extent, Emma Watson, prove this here. In playing themselves a little closer to “real life,” the stars ofThis Is the End show how versatile this approach can be. By taking this approach, they not only create something that is entertaining and throws handfuls of comedic powerhouses into one film, but also something that examines the scope of Hollywood vanity from the perspectives of those who have experienced it firsthand.

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