Thursday, October 31, 2013

This Is the End & Prince Avalanche

This Is the End (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg – USA) 106 minutes

Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green – USA) 90 minutes

Canadian childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the comedies Superbad and Pineapple Express under the auspices of the Judd Apatow stable, step behind the camera for the first time. The result is at times diverting, but more often annoying and desperately shorter on ideas than it thinks it is. Rogen, noticeably slimmed down from his early days in Hollywood, plays himself – as does everyone else in the film – and, at the beginning, picks Jay Baruchel (another Apatow regular) from the airport. Baruchel professes to hate the phoniness of LA and is not impressed when Rogen drags him along to a party at James Franco’s house.

At first, Jay is pissed off at his friend for abandoning him among the party’s glittery but unengaging guests, but then an earthquake intervenes, and appears to be more than your average LA tremor, swallowing up a number of the party’s guests – including none other than Rihanna – and it soon becomes apparent the Apocalypse is upon us. The assembled remaining guests – Seth and Jay, Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, familiar faces all – bicker among themselves as they fight for survival and the film runs through the expected gamut of gags for the constituent group of man-children – how are these guys expected to pull through Armageddon when all they have is weed, beer, beef jerky and an Xbox?

There are a few cumbersome and tasteless jokes along the way, including one where Emma Watson mistakenly believes the guys intend raping her and makes off with the last of their water. The scenario and most of the jokes will be familiar from Shaun of the Dead but that film being nearly a decade old now, This Is the End’s core audience is not going to notice that too much. The one thing that Rogen and Goldberg probably imagined was fresh in their approach was their casting everyone as fictional versions of themselves; unfortunately, there is no genuinely edgy Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque self-deprecation on display – Michael Cera is made to look a bit pathetic and there are digs at both Franco and Hill’s thespian vanity but it is all very complicit and very safe.

You come away with the rather annoying impression of witnessing a litany of frat-boy in-jokes that every one (the supposedly dissident Baruchel included) is in upon. This Is the End made its first appearance as an April Fool trailer for a sequel to Pineapple Express and it resembles that film in its basic structure and tone – with apocalyptic forces replacing the murderous drug traffickers. It’s predictable and occasionally amiable enough and will please Rogen’s teenage fans but as is increasingly the case with the Apatow circle, you feel that all are capable of much better.

The director of Pineapple Express was David Gordon Green, for whom, back in 2008, it represented a radical career following his earlier Malickian dramas George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow (the latter of which was produced by Terrence Malick himself). Green has since Pineapple Express continued along in the same vein of boisterous comedy, directing Your Highness, The Sitter and the Danny McBride TV show Eastbound and Down. With Prince Avalanche, he returns to the more restrained tenor of the earlier movies even if he retains a proclivity to cheap laughs.

Prince Avalanche is loosely based on a little-seen 2011 Icelandic film Either Way and is set in 1988, a year after a massive forest fire in Western Texas. The film was actually filmed in Bastrop County, close to Austin, which itself suffered a devastating fire two years ago, but, presumably for reasons of sensitivity, Green chose to move the action 25 years into the past. Middle-aged Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s feckless younger brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) are working as road maintenance men, repainting road markings and replacing signs and bollards after the fire. It’s a solitary existence, one savoured by Alvin, despite the fact it takes him away from his girlfriend, and hated by Lance, who just lives for the weekend and the opportunity to dip his wick.

We get a sense of the initial promise David Gordon Green showed in his earlier films – he films beautifully the destruction wrought by the forest fires and his casual, wordless observations of people bring home the sense of disbelief and disarray it must have occasioned those made homeless. The only two other characters in the film – an elderly alcoholic road worker and a mysterious woman who has lost her home – are never explained, and the background of the fire maintains a pregnant intrigue all the way to the end. It is a remarkable resistance to the obvious temptations of explaining everything away with signposted narrative developments and earned Green the Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

Where the film fails though is the central buddy-movie plot, which is perfunctory, hastily-constructed and never comes to life. The very first scene, in which the uptight Alvin argues with Lance when the latter removes Alvin’s German-learning tape from the stereo, gives you a taste of the contrived relationship that will follow. You imagine Green had Robert Altman or Hal Ashby in mind when conceiving the pairing, but his characterisation is slip-shod and inert in comparison. It is unlikely that greater diligence at the scripting stage would have lifted the film beyond run-of-the-mill Sundance standard but the whole thing could have been a whole lot better. As it is, it’s an interesting effort sunk by too great a cleaving to formula, which is another feature of Apatow and his circle.