In "The Bling Ring," Paris Hilton cameos but other glossy-mag staples appear without actually being in the room, ghosts in the media machine existing only in a particular set of minimally-differing iterations. In "This Is The End," not even the celebrities can see themselves outside of how their comic personas have been defined; the movie can't exist outside of the joke of seeing how those on-screen differ from or conform to how we already think about them. The shock (or at least novelty) of both films is how closely they train their primary focus on the idea of abstract celebrity, considering Los Angeles as a celebrity fishbowl from two oppositely gendered perspectives.
The idea of being famous for being famous isn't entirely new: the surprisingly credible Wikipedia page on the topic plausibly names Zsa Zsa Gabor as the first non-socialite to be written about far more than her tangible level of achievement would suggest. Nonetheless, it's clear celebrity culture as an industry with its own internal economy has developed exponentially in the last fifteen years (in 2011, "The New York Times" estimated the annual value of celeb gossip publications at $3 billion). "People" magazine's first issue in 1974 had Mia Farrow on the cover and made room for an Alexander Solzhenitsyn excerpt, a feature on the wives of soldiers who'd gone MIA in Vietnam and some socialite profile softballs ("Gloria Vanderbilt: A fourth marriage that really works"). The magazine's early innovations included a penchant for highlighting ordinary Americans who'd undergone some kind of horrific sickness or performed an unusual act of heroism.
In the early aughts, the magazine retooled itself to be much more aggressively/manically fixated on celebrity coverage (something its editors were so defensive about they went so far as to claim in 2006 that "the mix of celebrity and human interest stories has remained steady at about 53% to 47%, respectively, over the past five years"). This retooling came about in response to the emergence of competition from "In Touch Magazine" (founded in 2002), the decision in 2000 to change the focus of the previously industry-minded "Us Weekly" to a celebrity-fixated publication and other new competitors.
So it makes sense that the relatively scanty movies that take the idea of celebrity seriously are mostly confined to the last decade. This isn't to be confused with movies in which the fame of their players is a strong subtext (like "Vanilla Sky," in which the scenario is that Tom Cruise literally doesn't live in the real world) or any old biopic, since those generally function as half-baked psychologically-minded biographies attempting to "explain" how someone's past led to their cultural/social achievements, not tracts on fame itself. (This will be the only sentence in this article to acknowledge the existence of the 2004 movie "Paparazzi," which attempted to get ordinary Americans really and truly outraged about pesky celebrity photographers; it didn't take.) I'd be remiss (I suppose) if I didn't also mention Woody Allen's "Celebrity" or Gus Van Sant's "To Die For," though these mostly seem like warnings before the storm. Matteo Garrone's "Reality" (released here earlier this year) is worth noting, because it's about a guy who believes appearing on Italy's "Big Brother" will validate his life, although a) "Big Brother" is a much bigger phenomenon abroad than here b) "Reality" mostly treats celebrity as a metaphor for/correlative with religion.
That leaves us with two movies that came out three weeks ago.
"This Is The End"'s jokes depend on viewers being able to mediate between the person on-screen and what their understood personality is; otherwise, there's simply no humor in meek Michael Cera as a cocaine-snorting monster of self-absorption or watching Danny McBride take his bumptiously obnoxious self-confidence to its logical conclusion. Watching famous people pretend to non-celebrity status onscreen is always mildly disorienting, requiring collusion and a mutual agreement to ignore the obvious; puncturing this hard-won illusion seems to make people nervous. Trying to find financing for "This Is The End" was tough because of the premise of Seth Rogen, James Franco et al. enacting distorted versions of themselves. "Everyone asked: 'This apocalypse thing is great but do they have to play themselves?'" co-writer/-director Evan Goldberg recently explained. "Yes, they do, that’s the whole point!"
"The Bling Ring" is a movie in which the famous are visually inescapable without being physically present (read our full review here). Sofia Coppola's totally committed to trying to visually represent the mental intake of a teenager whose primary media consumption is of images of celebrities. Large swaths of the film are scrolling screenshots of gossip blogs; at one point, all we have to look at is a video loop of Lindsay Lohan stalking into court in a white dress. ("While Lindsay Lohan used to be an actress, her main stage these days is the paparazzi-filled walk into the courthouse, where she struts her stuff in designer duds like it's a catwalk," the "New York Daily News" snorted earlier this year.) The movie's teens believe that accessorizing like the stars can place them tangibly closer to fame. "I wanna have my own lifestyle," says lead protagonist Marc (Israel Broussard), meaning that the goal isn't to act/sing/perform/etc. in any capacity so that you can then enjoy the good things in life, but simply to exist as someone whose every appearance in the public sphere is compulsively hypnotic. The guys in "This Is The End" monetarily worry about whether they're so insulated that they can't even understand the apocalypse happening outside; the girls+guy of "The Bling Ring" aspire to that condition.
What's funny about "This Is The End" is that it treats Rogen as the biggest celebrity around while four years ago he played the embarrassed/disposable assistant to Adam Sandler in "Funny People." In that film, Judd Apatow (sort of) considered what celebrity does to a person by having Sandler's comic confront his inability to come up with new material due to having been disconnected from reality so long. He needs Rogen's struggling comic for inspiration (the cancer subplot is a red herring in a lot of ways), and "This Is The End" takes that idea to its logical conclusion by having Rogen as someone now so famous the only jokes that can emerge concern his direct existence. This is the end, indeed.