Canadian Sellout Anxiety

Why so many from up north come south—and then feel guilty about it.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel in "This is the End."
Canadians Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel in This is the End

Photo courtesy of SMPSP/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./Sony Pictures

It’s apocalypse season again, those fun few summer months when instead of wearing white the Hollywood movies are clad in artfully tattered rags. This June alone, in addition to Will and Jaden Smith’s After Earth, we have Brad Pitt leading us through the CGI carnage of World War Z and the maestro of world-ending mayhem himself, Roland Emmerich—director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012burning the White House Down.

Wedged between these more traditional entries is This Is the End, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s terrifically silly genre-buster, in which a party at James Franco’s Los Angeles mansion goes nuclear—or Satanic, or maybe alien: One of the running jokes questions which flavor of apocalypse has interrupted the fun. The movie sends up any number of the end-of-the-world staples audiences can now measure in buttered handfuls.

Rogen and Goldberg say their film, the directorial debut for both, is really about friendship. The same is more obviously true of their first feature collaboration, Superbad, which they wrote as kids growing up in Vancouver. But whereas Superbad X-rayed an adolescent male friendship, This Is the End—despite featuring a cast so pungently male that the lone woman (Emma Watson) to stumble into the story soon axes her disgusted way out—offers a less gendered slant on its theme. The niche it explores instead is even more exclusive: What happens when a Canadian friendship is hitched to a third wheel the size and shape of the United States.

Canada’s axis of talent and opportunity has long run north/south. Brain and comedian drain are known blights; every four years Canadians weep to see those hometown hockey players sold off to American franchises don the maple leaf for the Olympics. Developing a cultural identity is tricky when a country is pressed against the world’s greatest superpower. In the past this has contributed to what Lorne Michaels, a highly successful Canadian, has called “a kind of national self-loathing.” In an interview with Alec Baldwin last year, Michaels recalled approaching his boss, the then-head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, about a job offer that would take him to the States. “If you’re that good, why are you here?” his boss replied.

Rogen and Goldberg were raised, then, as all Canadians are, amid these delicate resentments, and their new film folds them into an allegory of the end of a friendship as the end of the world. As with all of the characters in This Is the End, Rogen stars as himself—that is to say, a Hollywood baller with the connections and the view to prove it. His co-star is Jay Baruchel, another Apatow alum and a fellow Canadian. (Baruchel was the lead on Undeclared, the follow-up to Freaks and Geeks that was also quite good but will probably never get the oral history treatment.) In real life, after a stint in Los Angeles, Baruchel decided to return to Canada and pursue his career from there—though not before a bout of homesickness resulted in a red maple leaf tattoo over his heart. Since then Baruchel has vowed never to leave his native Montreal, and exhibits the kind of patriotism that can make those Canadians camped out across the border feel a little queasy.

“Everyone had always left,” Lorne Michaels said in that same interview with Baldwin, describing his youthful hope of joining “the first generation of artists who would be able to stay in Canada. “And the moment that you left, in Canada people started to treat you differently.” Like Rogen, Michaels had a writing partner; in the late ‘60s he and Hart Pomerantz tried their luck in L.A., writing for Phyllis Diller and Laugh In. The pair headed back to Canada for a CBC show, but their stay was brief. When Michaels decided to take that better offer in Los Angeles, Pomerantz settled in Toronto and became a lawyer.

Growing up in a Vancouver infested with film and television shoots demystified the industry for Rogen and Goldberg, but some naiveté remained: They wrote Superbad not realizing, as Rogen said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast this week, that “you can’t write a movie that takes place in Canada and have it be released in America in a major way.” Their very personal story would have to be deracinated, all its references to home extracted, made American, and put back in.

“We always thought we’d make it,” said Goldberg during the same interview. “We just never thought we’d make it how we made it.” Canadians tend to be uncomfortable with bald ambition, bulging out in the open like that. But Goldberg and Rogen had each other, and they had a plan. Baruchel also dreamed of filmmaking (as opposed to acting) from a very young age, but felt more ambivalent about the expatriate path. (Aware of his friend’s ambitions, Goldberg asked Baruchel to co-write the hilarious—and deeply Canadian—hockey flick Goon, released in 2011.) With This Is the End, Rogen and Goldberg finally wrested the kind of control they ditched Canada (joking, joking) to command. For a Canadian viewer, especially, it’s gratifying to see them restore to their more universally pleasing repertoire of dick jokes a few elements of home.

The film opens with Jay arriving in Los Angeles for some alone time with his famous friend Seth. Rather than a rose-petal heart arranged on the bed, on the coffee table at his condo Seth has spelled out his buddy’s name with joints. (This is true love.) But there is tension between them, as becomes evident when Seth suggests attending James Franco’s housewarming blowout. Jay is uncomfortable with Hollywood flash, and with Seth’s apparent comfort with it; he spends the party sulking in the face of American exuberance and excess. (Another alternative, posed by Canadian No. 3 Michael Cera in a neon color-blocked windbreaker, is delirious, coked-out corruption.) Baruchel has said that the story draws on his time as Rogen’s roommate in L.A., and the movie makes it easy to imagine them as the two types of Canadians likely familiar to Americans: the mole on the make, identifiable only by his extreme self-deprecation; and the peacock, always fanning his superiority and Montreal Canadiens plumage.

Once the apocalypse hits, Seth’s assimilation gains a mortal importance. Franco favors him, slipping him crackers from a secret food stash and vowing to sacrifice himself for his friend, both in real life and in their sequel to Pineapple Express. Jonah Hill, whose extreme friendliness Jay takes for American smarm, thinks Seth maintains the friendship out of guilt: “It’s like Jay is the last connection to his shitty weird Canadian life!” Aware he’s losing Seth—“We’ve been growing apart for years,” he admits—Jay further alienates himself from the group.* Yet it’s not Seth but one of the “asshole” Americans he shuns who winds up saving Jay’s butt in the clinch. As the action ramps up, so does the identity politics. In the midst of Jonah’s exorcism (turns out it’s a Biblical apocalypse), Jay accuses Seth of selling out. “At least I did sell out,” Seth shouts. “You still act like you’re 18!”

You don’t have to be Canadian—or, like me, a Canadian living in the States—to be oddly warmed by their fighting. The sellout argument is viable across all sorts of state and municipal and otherwise self-righteous lines. But for Canadians the debate has a particular charge; as with ambition itself, it’s rare for us to see it out in the open that way.

Maybe I was particularly vulnerable. On my way to the screening of This Is the End, at the start of my 10th summer in New York City, I pulled a brand new green card out of the mailbox. I clutched it from Brooklyn to midtown, and kept it my lap until the credits rolled. Listening to Goldberg and Rogen on WTF this week, I felt a new kinship; they don’t issue cards here, but limbo is its own country. “Do you miss Canada?” Maron asked them. “Yeah,” they both said softly, without hesitation.

* Correction, June 17, 2013: This piece originally attributed the line “We’ve been growing apart for years” to Seth Rogen. It is spoken by Jay Baruchel.