If you haven’t seen THIS IS THE END, please do. You will laugh so hard your face will explode. It’s also a prime example of a comedy that puts new twists on a two-hander in such a way that makes an old fashioned scenario (a bunch of guys, trapped together) feel completely fresh.
In the last couple of years, it’s become clear that a significant number of the comedies being produced are stories driven by two characters. Some examples include 22 (and 21) JUMP STREET, THE HEAT, LET’S BE COPS, and THE INTERNSHIP.
There’s a long history of buddy comedies. But let’s look at THIS IS THE END and see what this film does to embrace the conventions of the buddy genre, and innovate it.
Here’s the set up. Two old friends, Seth Rogan (as himself) and Jay Baruchel (also as himself) have a long history (based in truth—they are both Canadian and got to know each other as 18-year-old actors.) Seth now lives in LA where he’s a successful comic actor, and Jay, slightly bitter at Seth’s success (and feeling he’s a sellout) comes to visit. Upon Jay’s arrival, Seth goes out of his way to make Jay feel welcome, buying all kinds of munchies and spelling out Jay’s name with doobies. Jay hates LA and everything it stands for, but after they get totally wasted, Seth convinces him to go to a party at James Franco’s house. Seth really wants Jay to meet and bond with his “new” LA friends.
While they are at Franco’s house, the apocalypse hits.
Great set up right? Two friends are at a crossroads, they go to a party and bam. It’s the rapture. Although the movie leans into all the buddy comedy conventions (tension between the two characters, they are given a task, they split apart, then come together in the end) the story gets twisted in cool ways…
1. The story gets a meta spin. The main actors play themselves and the script riffs on their pop culture personas in funny ways. Michael Cera (known as the nicest guy in the world) plays a total jerk. Craig Robinson sings and sweats a lot. Jonah Hill (lately revealed in the press to be a bit ornery,) is a super nice guy. Danny McBride, well…. he basically plays one of his film characters cranked to twelve. It’s not just a bunch of characters trapped in the house, it’s a bunch of ACTUAL MOVIE STARS who we know and love trapped in a house. See how this meta hook makes the movie’s central concept more original?
2. The film starts by focusing on the two main characters, expands out to feel like an ensemble movie, then comes back to our two main guys. This is an unusual structure for a buddy comedy. Instead of the structural focus being primarily on the two characters throughout, the writers use lots of supporting players in the middle to create fun and tension. In the end, they bring attention back to our heroes.
3. Act 2 is filled with crazy, non-narratively driven set pieces. Although the middle of the movie is nominally about them trying to find water and food and survive, it devolves into hilarious set pieces that don’t necessarily move the story forward. Bored out of their minds, they take all the drugs in the house. Franco and Danny McBride have a running fight about something I can’t mention in this post, and Hermione Granger shows up and steals their supplies.
4. The movie manipulates our knowledge of cinematic language and film history to create comedy. Video confessionals are used to reveal tension building in the house, and they all start to act like fourteen year old girls. Jonah Hill (after praying for Jay’s death) gets raped by the devil, and we have an homage to ROSEMARY’S BABY. Jay tries to relieve Jonah of the devil inside and channels THE EXORCIST. We’ve seen these video confessionals all over reality TV, and most of us have viewed both of these classic horror films. We get the references and laugh.
5. Its supporting characters are unique, fleshed out, and each has a protagonist-worthy arc. Jonah goes from good to bad (literally, a demon,) Franco tries to change his ways, but is revealed ultimately to be selfish and vindictive (and is cannibalized for it.) Craig Robinson, who is cowardly at the beginning (he lets Aziz Ansari fall to his death) sacrifices himself and goes to heaven. Danny McBride, well…. You have to watch the movie to see his incredible fate.
THIS IS THE END takes the buddy comedy to a new place. It uses the meta spin to up its originality, makes its supporting cast feel like main characters, and leans into cinematic conventions for fun.
Take action! If you are writing in a genre that feels tired, how are you going to make it feel fresh? If you have an idea, ask yourself, does it truly feel new? If not, you have to work harder. What’s the hook or spin that will make your set up groundbreaking?
If you haven’t seen THIS IS THE END, do. You know that if the apocalypse comes, ground zero will be Hollywood. How can you write the screenplay that’s going to change the world before it burns to the ground?