Judging from current releases, the hallmark of screen success isn't landing a starring role in Man of Steel; it's getting a movie filmed in your house. Shot in 12 days at the filmmaker's Malibu home, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing took in a healthy per-screen gross over the weekend. Likewise set in or concerned with L.A.-area estates, This Is the End (opening today) and The Bling Ring (opening Friday) suggest one goal of modern movie stardom is having the clout to appear in a film that blurs the distinction between public and private life.
This Is the End is set during the apocalypse, which begins shortly after a group of Apatow alums — cast as “themselves” — assemble for a party at James Franco's pad. As flaming pits of Hell crack open beneath the ground and zombies (or is it cannibals?) attack survivors outside, the holed-up actors riff on the sequels they never got to make. At one comic high point, they shoot a video trailer illustrating their concept for Pineapple Express 2, with Jonah Hill standing in for a Woody Harrelson role.
Writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have clearly conceived the film as a send-up of celeb entitlement, and the patina of realism is, shall we say, half-baked. (End wasn't shot in the Hills, but tax-incentive powerhouse Louisiana.) The self-regard can grate. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott complains that “solipsism has turned into shtick.”
Still, appearing as yourself onscreen is one way of proving you've arrived. Jokes about a coked-up, womanizing Michael Cera would be unimaginable in 2007, the year the actor played the meek lead in the Rogen/Goldberg-penned Superbad. Nor would any of End be funny before polymath Franco — who, as a director, just premiered a split-screen adaptation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying at Cannes — morphed into a parody of himself.
Superficially a story of celebrities wronged, The Bling Ring demonstrates the degree to which This Is the End's brand of faux-chumminess is courted, even welcomed. Based on Nancy Jo Sales's Vanity Fair account of the Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch, the movie unfolds in flashback from the thieves' perspectives, as they recount their story to a journalist. But there's another viewpoint: that of director of Sofia Coppola, whose film, in the guise of a departure, continues her exploration of the contradictions of fame, an interest that runs through Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere.
And unlike her subjects, Coppola has access. Not only is Paris Hilton — whom one might think the victim of excess attention in the real-life thefts — self-promoting enough to appear in a cameo, she reportedly permitted the director to film in her actual home, a monument to tackiness adorned with magazine covers for which she's posed. There's even a “nightclub room,” where the invading teens stage an impromptu party and one (Emma Watson, who plays herself in This Is The End) does a chaste pole dance. Even before the cameras were rolling, Hilton's garish manse was as much a performance space as any soundstage. She may not have invited these kids in, but she wanted this place to be seen.
While all three films are willfully small, “personal” projects that risk charges of artistic coasting, Much Ado is the most modest and productively downscale of the trio. This is in part because the text would be a masterpiece in any context, and in part because modern-dress Shakespeare is an inherently self-conscious mode. According to Amy Nicholson's profile in the Weekly, some cast members joined the project thinking they were simply showing up at the director's house for a reading. With friends like these, you too can turn your drama club into a DIY film production.
However much Whedon resists the designation “passion project,” Much Ado boosts his indie credentials following the cacophony of The Avengers. Initially, it's difficult to watch the movie without an awareness of the circumstances under which it was made — the knowledge that you're watching Whedon-verse vets playing versions of themselves playing Shakespeare's characters. Still, unlike with This Is the End, the sense of in-house riffing doesn't overwhelm. The play's the thing, and Much Ado is the only home movie this week in which fame is more than an end in itself.