For years, Hollywood producers have been cannibalizing television shows to come up with concepts for movies. The trend might have looked like it was on its way out after the low-rent megaplex versions of Starsky & Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard (the latter of which I actually liked), but no, it’s still very much with us, from The A-Team to Dark Shadows to 21 Jump Street (can Doctor Who be far behind?). Reality TV, on the other hand, is a different animal, resistant by nature to being translated to the big screen. It’s not that you can’t do it. As far back as the late ’60s, when Candid Camera was a seminal early example of reality programming, that show spawned a smuttier-than-the-small-screen movie version, the boob-tube-plus-boobs What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970). And given that a great many reality shows exploit our attraction to salacious subject matter, it would have seemed far from totally absurd if they’d come up with, say, a movie version of Jersey Shore, where the hot-tub cavorting didn’t need to be fuzzed out and The Situation could have gotten into some situations too risqué for TV.
The fact that no one ever made that movie is, of course, probably a good thing. And there’s an obvious reason why no one is really clamoring for big-screen versions of The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Duck Dynasty or Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Those shows, while aspects of them are certainly staged, still hinge on the anything-can-happen serial randomness that thrives on TV. They would gain nothing, and lose much, by being packaged and reheated and served in an overly formatted two-hour movie. The Jackass films, of course, have done incredibly well (and to me they’re a lot of fun), but they’re an anomaly. Even if one or two other shows follow suit, they’ll remain the rare exception.
Yet This Is the End, the Seth Rogen-powered apocalypse-now Hollywood satire that opened this weekend with a decent small bang at the box office, is very much a film that demonstrates how reality TV has rearranged the DNA of our entertainment sensors. At the start of the movie, Rogen is approached by a stranger at an airport who says, “Hey, Seth Rogen, what up, man?” and what’s fascinating about that moment is that as soon as we learn that Rogen is playing a version of himself, it doesn’t take any major adjustment on our part. We accept it with a shrug — and, in fact, it’s something that I embraced with eagerness and a feeling that I can almost describe as relief, when it suddenly hit me: Wow, this is not going to be a movie in which I have to watch Seth Rogen pretend to be some dumb-smart character named, you know, Adam Waxman or something, as he acts out all the carefully market-tested behavior traits — overgrown boy-man! with schlemiel tendencies! — that we expect of a Seth Rogen character. He’s just playing Seth Rogen himself, who seems like he would be — and, in fact, is — a lot more entertaining to watch than “Adam Waxman.”
Of course, there’s a reason why, in writing about This Is the End, you have to say that Seth Rogen is playing “a version of himself.” It’s not just due to libel law (though, in fact, that’s part of it). It’s because the “Seth Rogen” we’re seeing in This Is the End really is a conceit, a concoction, a character, every bit as much as “Adam Waxman” would be. In any number of ways, of course, he probably does come close to what the real Seth Rogen is like. Does Rogen really smoke bud like a chimney? Take the piss out of people? Think that non-gluten food means anything that’s good for you? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that the “Seth Rogen” of This Is the End is a fusion of reality and fiction, a heightened version of the real thing. And in that sense, he’s very much like the big-screen version of a reality-TV personality, a Nene Leakes or a Snooki Polizzi. What you see is what you get, but what you see is not all there is, or even all real. What you see, on those shows, is a person who is acting the role of being him or herself, which is why certain figures in the genre rise up to become stars. They are natural-born performers even when they’re just “being.” And maybe, to a degree, that’s true of the rest of us as well.
In This Is the End, Rogen and five of his fellow actors and comedians (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride) all play versions of themselves, and the hilarity of the movie is that we really do think we’re watching who they are, because even though we know that it’s a scripted and staged comedy (it’s set during the Rapture, for God’s sake!), we can’t tell, at least as far as the actors’ personalities go, where reality leaves off and invention begins. If you’ve ever watched, say, Jonah Hill on a talk show, he seems like a very nice guy, and that soft-voiced menschy side of him is there in the movie, but so is a quietly underlying vanity and ego, which dovetails so perfectly with the precise moment that he’s at in his career — the comic star who was tubby and less handsome than other comic stars, and so might have seemed to be lower on the Hollywood totem pole, and therefore less vain, but who has now shown glimmers of being a major actor, and therefore gets to star in a Scorsese movie, which means that his ego is now probably off the friggin’ hook…well, because of all that, we’re slyly seduced into thinking that the Jonah Hill we’re seeing is, yes, the embodiment of exactly what we might tend to believe about him.
And then there’s Franco. These days, it would be all too easy to imagine James Franco, with his insatiable instinct for multi-media self-presentation (he is movie star, pretentiously impassioned omnivore grad student, offbeat indie film director, and the world’s first postmodern I’ll-act-flaky-because-I’m-not-really-into-this Oscar host), trying his hand at a hall-of-mirrors reality show called, you know, Franco American, in which the camera followed him around on his adventures as a sexy, celebrated actor who is also a highbrow showbiz gadfly. And if Franco ever did a show like that, you’d better believe that it would be an inside-Hollywood-baseball slice of life that was also a piece of vérité performance art in which Franco played a version of James Franco. Well, that’s what he does in This Is the End. Yet the bits of theater and self-mockery are so neatly embedded in the satire that when Rogen and Jay Baruchel first go over to a party at Franco’s newly renovated house, and someone makes a crack about it looking like a place where Pablo Escobar would live, I laughed out loud at the joke, but a few minutes later I caught myself thinking: Yes, of course James Franco would live in a place that looks just like this. The movie is so clever that it had outwitted the part of me that should know better.
At this point, you may think: Okay, so there’s an overlap between the actors-playing-themselves premise of This Is the End and the way that real people (and celebrities) play themselves on reality TV. So what? Mightn’t the amusing texture of celebrity voyeurism in This Is the End emerge, just as much, from our current world of gossip and fishbowl publicity and general media overexposure? A world where movie stars now spend a lot more time being seen as themselves then they do disappearing into their roles? Well, yes, of course. And no, the connection with reality TV isn’t absolute.
Where I do think it’s significant, and maybe even revolutionary, is that This Is the End is just eyebrow-raising enough in terms of its basic conceptual stunt that it could wind up kicking open a new door and exerting a major influence. I could see whole lot of stars watching the movie and wanting to do something just like it. It’s not as if it’s unprecedented anyway — remember when Julia Roberts played “Julia Roberts” in Ocean’s Twelve? Or when Robert Altman, 20 years ago, cast a whole galaxy of movie stars as themselves in The Player? I could see movies employing actors-as-themselves to create all sorts of devious fun levels of meta japery — a prankish thriller, say, in which everyone is playing a fictional character, except that one of the characters is “George Clooney,” showing us what the “real” George Clooney is like at his reclusive Lake Como villa. Or a Will Ferrell comedy that’s about the making of a Will Ferrell comedy. The point is that the age of reality TV, in which the very paradigm of who a star is, what a character is, and what entertainment is has been turned on its head, is the implicit backdrop for a movie like This Is the End. And the creative possibilities for movies conceived within that context are ripe. It’s probably up to the stars themselves. Just think about it: Who wants to give the first Oscar-bait performance as him or herself? And who should?
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