Monday, June 24, 2013

"This is the end": theological reflection on a dark comedy about the Last Days

As those of you who follow my blog know, each year I give awards for best films, documentaries and animated features promoting nonviolence and peace. I call this “The Golden Dove Award.” This year I’ve seen a film that makes me wonder if I need to give another award, one I am tentatively calling “The Rubber Ducky Award.”

This award came about because one of my roles as uncle is to accompany my niece and nephews to movies of their choice. This week I went to my niece’s graduation in New Jersey and was asked to go to see “This is the End” by my sixteen-year-old nephew. I love my nephew but our tastes are very different. He loves professional wrestling, violent films and video games, and comedies full of profanity. So I was curious about going to see a film that he was excited about.

“This is the end” is a comedy with an unlikely theme: the end of the world. Its plot revolves around a group of comedian-actors whose lives consist of doing drugs, playing video games, having sex, talking about sex, cracking jokes at each other’s expense, and partying to the max. Two of them go together to a mega party in Beverly Hills in a high tech fortress compound with wall-to-wall art and drugs created by a popular actor I had never heard of. Not being much of a fan of pop culture, I never heard of any of the actors who portrayed themselves in this movie, so I missed a lot of the allusions. The action and humor were so lightning-paced most of the jokes went over my head, but I gather from my nephew’s laughter, something funny was going on. I can testify that most of the humor involved sex and profanity.

When Los Angeles is hit by a mega earthquake, and raging fires, most of the partyers run outside and fall into a bottomless sinkhole that seems to lead directly to hell. (This is later referred to as the "Sinkhole de Mayo." Ha, ha!) A small troop of comics who escape this fate find themselves trapped in their fortified mansion, fearful of the Dantesque inferno outside. There they must learn to get along and to share their limited supplies of food, water, drugs, and a single candy bar. Learning how to share proves a huge test for men who are charming and funny, but who are as immature as kindergartners when it comes to survival skills and moral awareness.

The humor is dark, dark, dark. In one scene, a man desperate to escape from the flames and demons outside the mansion smashes a hole in the door and begs to be let in. As the comedians debate whether or not to allow him to enter, there is ghastly scream and his head goes rolling across the floor, gushing blood. The comedians scream like little girls and begin kicking the head around and then are embarrassed to realize they are playing soccer with it. If this is the kind of humor you find enjoyable, you will love this movie.

As  horror after horror unfold, and the gang of comics react in absurd ways, one of them realizes that what they are experiencing was predicted in the Book of Revelations. This is not a natural disaster, but God’s judgment, he tells his incredulous friends. He recalls seeing people sucked up into heaven in a blue beam of light, and realizes he was witnessing The Rapture. He urges his friends to repent, but they think he’s smoked some bad weed.

It turns out he is right. They are experiencing the Tribulations described in Revelations. One of the troop becomes possessed by a demon, and their safe house ends up engulfed in flames. When they leave, they are confronted by a horrific demon who stands between them and their escape vehicle. One of the troop—a black man who feels badly about some act of violence he committed as a teenager—decides to sacrifice his life for his friends. He makes a ruckus to distract the demon so his friends can escape. As they drive away, they see a  blue light suck their ecstatic friend up into the night sky. He is clearly heavenly bound!

They realize is the only way to escape the Tribulation is to sacrifice their lives for their friends. No easy task for a bunch of narcissistic comedians who find it well-nigh impossible to share a Snickers bar.

As I watched this plot device, I couldn’t help thinking of the Gospel of John, which begins: “The Light shone in the darkness and the darkness couldn’t understand or extinguish it.”

The glimmer of light in this dark comedy—its saving grace, as it were—was friendship. Screwed up as these comedians were, most of them genuinely liked each other and were trying, as best as they could, to be genuine friends.

In the Gospel of John, which the makers of this film seem to have known, Jesus explains the nature of real friendship. He tells his disciples that they are no longer his servants, but his friends, if they follow one simple commandment: “love one other.”

Love is a much misunderstood word, so Jesus explains exactly what he means: “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his friends.”

Bingo! That’s the key that helps these self-centered comedians escape from the hell world of the Last Days. One by one they put themselves in harm’s way to save a friend, and are raptured into heaven.

The film doesn’t take itself seriously, so heaven turns out to be a narcissists’ paradise. In this Beverly Hill’s version of heaven, everyone parties and does drugs (presumably with no hang overs or side effects), and everyone can have anything they want. This isn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind, but who really knows? He forgave prostitutes and other ne’er do wells because they “loved much.” Perhaps Jesus would forgive Hollywood actors and let them party for eternity if they are willing to “lay down their lives for their friends.” We won’t know for sure what God has in store for us until we have the courage and faith to follow this challenging commandment. However, the film makes one thing clear: If these drug-addled, narcissistic comedians can do it, there is hope for us!

It is tempting to dismiss movies like “This is the end” as a waste of time (and I certainly wouldn’t recommend seeing it unless you have a beloved teenage nephew who wants to see it). But as a Quaker and a Christian, I try to see “that of God” in every one and in every act of creation. There is a lot of trash and filth and darkness in “The is the end,” but there is also a glimmer of light. The film clearly shows that self-sacrificial love is the key that unlocks the door to heaven. Given this premise, which I totally endorse, I am willing to give “This is the end” my newest award, the Rubber Ducky, for a film that has at least one redeeming feature.











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