God, Man, and Partying: The Seth Rogen Trilogy

Seth Rogen’s last three films, The Interview (2014), Neighbors (2014) and This Is the End (2013), are best taken as a trilogy, with Neighbors as the key.

In Neighbors, new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) find themselves with a rowdy fraternity next door. When they try to reason with their new, inconsiderate neighbors, the climate turns hostile and violent on both sides.

A lot of nasty stuff happens in Neighbors. Writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (and producer Rogen) take this movie rather quickly to a very dark place. Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the frat house’s alpha male, is a relentless partier. It doesn’t require much for Teddy to entice the Radners back to that pre-baby life-style.

Teddy manipulates Mac to agree to discuss any problems directly with him before calling the police. In desperation, however, Mac calls the cops, who out him to Teddy. The fraternity brothers then turn up the volume on the partying, literally, adding some nasty, even dangerous pranks. As his desperation increases, Mac even considers bribing Teddy.

Once Teddy discovers that Mac has summoned the police, he is frighteningly unforgiving. Zac Efron beautifully depicts the fierce and scary reaction of someone whose defining ideal and core belief (partying and partying) are attacked.

The Radners try various passive aggressive means to destroy the fraternity, and ultimately ratchet up the violence to unforeseen levels. They soon come up with the cruel and dangerous plot of manipulating Teddy’s girlfriend to sleep with another frat member. Increasingly, they betray the party culture they admire and know so well by exploiting its effects on the partiers’ physical and mental capacities. They have a deep-seated need to purge themselves of the partiers -- and of the compulsion to party.

For whatever reason, Rogen, Cohen and O’Brien throw “Jewish” stuff into their party mix. When Mac wants to call his mother to ask her about a breast issue that besets the nursing Kelly, she cries out in consternation: “Jesus, you Jews and your f-ing mothers.”  Mac is treated as the house Jew by Kelly and her best friend, who greets him one time with a “Shalom, Mac.” Mac’s best buddy is Jewish, and has craziness in his own life. This friend’s knowledge of Hebrew causes trouble when he helps Mac to forge an official college letter in order to entrap the fraternity. Teddy is quick to spot that the logo is “written in Jewish, not Latin.” Is Hebrew the preferred language of deception in Rogen movies?

Tellingly, Rogen did not use much Hebrew or even Jewish theology in his “biblical epic,” This Is the End, which slips the Book of Revelation into a Hollywood orgy. His movie buddies play themselves, and allow themselves to depict various human vices, quirks and treacheries (seven-plus deadly sins personified?).

The film begins with Rogen dragging visiting Jay Baruchel to a party at James Franco’s house, where they meet Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, and others.  Uncomfortable, Baruchel escapes to buy some cigarettes, and Rogen feels obliged to accompany him. In the store some customers are lifted by light to rapturous heavenly rewards. Most of the rest of Hollywood, including most of the party guests, is literally swallowed up by the ground.

Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill and Robinson hole themselves up in Franco’s house and believe that they can sleep off events until help arrives. The guys struggle with each others’ vices, with occasional visitors, and with a beast of the apocalypse and other satanic manifestations. Fortunately, Jay knows when to cross himself and what to read from the Christian scriptures. He determines that the biblical Judgment Day has come. The others regard him as self-righteous, and Franco tells him, “If you’re here, you’re just as sh--ty as the rest of us.”

Rogen begins to wonder whether God messed up (he uses coarser language) and left them “behind by accident” (a clear parody of the “Left Behind” series).  Craig Robinson sincerely counters, “There’s a reason we’re all here.”

The guys come to realize that they are dodging some nasty, real end-of-the-world stuff, and look to drink and drugs and whatever amusement they can find. As Jonah Hill says, “Just because the world is destroyed outside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have fun.” Certainly, the situation hardly prevents them from saying and doing some pretty vulgar and sacrilegious things. 

Rogen emphasizes more than once that Jewish upbringing is inadequate for this particular scenario. He says that he went to Hebrew School for six years and that none of the “signs” that night were in Hebrew. (Maybe it is just as well that the writers and producers did not use Jewish apocalyptical folklore.)

When push comes to shove, Craig thinks of others first and goes straight to Heaven, winning a plaudit from Franco, “You’re a mentsch.” Jay suggests that if the others follow Craig’s example, they can be redeemed. Yet such opportunity incites mendacity and immaturity, to the point that Jay chides someone, “You’re only nice because you believe that God wants you to [be].”

Granted that this movie is a parody of Christian apocalyptical theology, and that part of the joke is the way that some Jews are unprepared for it. But the film does not build on Christian theology. It exploits Christian symbols for the sake of slasher-flick tactics, yielding some cheap suspense to go with cheaper laughs and the cheapening of Heaven itself. In the end Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg indicate that theology does not bring about goodness as much as natural responses to certain conditions, and that a lot of human beings would not get into Heaven unless they received credit for unintentional good thoughts or deeds. Besides, we are told, Heaven is just one big party anyway, in which you can wish for your favorite band.

The “moral” of Rogen’s “theology,” then, is that partying cannot destroy one’s good instincts and may even dull the psyche enough so that one is more natural while under fire, even under Divine fire, and may even have a better chance of doing something good by instinctual reaction.

From The Interview it would appear that Rogen relegates politics to what one does in order to be the kind of person with whom many people want to party. Here, Rogen plays Aaron Rapaport, the self-doubting producer of a tell-all talk show hosted by shallow Dave Skylark (Franco, with charmed silliness).  Jealous of a journalism school classmate who works for 60 Minutes, Aaron becomes restless with his job. His friend Skylark, who relies on him, finds out that the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un (impressively portrayed by Randall Park), has two favorite TV shows, Big Bang Theory and Skylark Tonight. This energizes Aaron to meet with the North Koreans and to arrange an interview. He is more than willing to take a grueling trip to China (devouring Chinese food), but has second thoughts about agreeing to a canned interview with all the questions provided by a tyrant.

Skylark reassures Aaron: “When you score a Bin Ladin or a Hitler or a Un, you take them by the balls. Here’s the first rule of journalism. You give the people what they want. We do this [and then] you can interview any president on the planet and ask them the real questions.”

The prospect of a globally televised interview puts the friends into Ecstasy, literally. Sleeping off a hangover after partying with Ecstasy and booze, they are awakened by two visiting CIA agents who summon them to poison the nuke-happy dictator. Smitten by the female agent, Skylark is more than willing to go along, but, at first, Rapaport distrusts the CIA.

When they finally accept and embark on the mission, the vain Skylark switches carry-on bags, compromising their security and the handling of the poison, and, once in Korea, is taken in by Kim Jong-Un and his propaganda. (Aaron is attracted to the dictator’s public relations woman, and the feeling becomes mutual.)  Skylark and Kim bond, and also learn about each others’ weaknesses.

Rapaport and Skylark party together and separately. Rapaport falls into an impromptu celebration while on the train in China, and Skylark does not need to be dragged to a soiree with drink and women arranged by his new friend Kim Jong-Un.

The propaganda spell wears off once Skylark observes the real Kim in action, bragging that he would kill a million people to ensure his sovereignty. (Randall Park does a stunning Jekyll and Hyde and is excellent in his Zac Efron moment.) In the end Skylark brings down the dictator not with poison but with American talk show know-how, at the suggestion of a North Korean dissident.

Standard criticisms of America are repeated over and over here: “America is always putting its nose in things and screwing them up.” Then there’s the question: “How many times must the United States make the same mistake?” And the answer: “As many times at it takes.” Yet writer Dan Sterling, and producers/co-directors Rogen and Goldberg, do make it clear that the rhetoric goes back and forth, depending on how the characters are feeling at the moment, and that there are concentration camps and widespread starvation in North Korea.

Along with the partying, there is a lot of coarse language (and sometimes outright blasphemy, as in This Is the End) and toilet and body parts jokes in this movie. The film obsesses on the dictator’s claim that he is a god and does not need to defecate, thus enabling Skylark to tell Kim Jong-Un: “No friend would blow up another friend’s country. You’re just a flawed man with a big old butthole and you pee and poop like the rest of us.”

The main “Jewish” reference in The Interview is a tense moment when a taken-in Skylark prevents Rapaport from assassinating Kim with poison-on-the-hand, urging him not to shake hands “Because Aaron is a Jew.”  Rogen’s Kim responds, “Gross. Don’t you know Jews are bad luck?” The (lame) hand jokes are the movie’s best “humor.” There are not many laughs in this long and predictable movie which, until the last half hour is excruciatingly slow-paced.

Neighbors is definitely the best of the trilogy and the key to them. It explains a lot about Rogen’s genre.

Most noticeably, there is no coming of age in these movies. The principals remain their childish, partying selves. But circumstances do impose some changes. In Neighbors the baby is the game changer, but the Radners remain gamers, and ruthless ones at that.

In the other films the principals are shaken by God and by the CIA, respectively, only to party again. Religious values, especially Jewish teachings, are latched onto only out of desperation, with hopes that they will enable the party to resume.

There are moments of awareness in these films. The most powerful of these is the Radners’ recognition of some of their own party-priority rage in Teddy. In This Is the End the friends realize that their world has changed and that selfish behavior (and comments) will make things worse. In The Interview good American values and instincts take over.  Skylark gradually awakens to a dictator’s evil.

Because of some sweet and even touching aspects to Rogen’s films, I have hoped to see some depth of thoughtfulness in his work or interviews, especially since he made an effort at making a “theological” movie. Mostly, however, he uses every occasion to extol partying. But he did pause in a recent Rolling Stone interview (Dec. 18, 2014) to say of The Interview: “At best it will cause a country to be free, and it worst it will cause a nuclear war. Big margin with this movie.”

Will Rogen’s film bring down the North Korean regime? Before asking that question, we need to explore why Rogen’s genre, with its message that neither parenthood nor career nor religion can match unbridled access to drugs and booze, is so wildly popular in the free world. Meanwhile, Rogen’s films continue to advocate partying, at the expense of -- whatever.