In 2013, the Anna Kendrick comedy Rapture-Palooza had the misfortune of opening exactly one week ahead of Seth Rogen’s This Is The End, another absurdist envisioning of Judgment Day. (They even shared a primary cast member: Craig Robinson, in both cases playing his usual “teddy bear with a hair-trigger temper.”) Rogen’s better-publicized vanity project buried Rapture-Palooza during its limited release, banishing it to the outer realms of online streaming. It spent the past few years floating around largely forgotten, except by the occasional delighted character-actor enthusiast.
But while Rogen’s celebrity send-up won its day, the unloved runt film has aged better. This orphaned concept comedy has evolved into a weirdly prophetic guide to living through and eventually rejecting the unthinkable, which makes it unexpectedly apt for our current cultural moment. Rapture-Palooza contains one of the most uncanny pop culture avatars for Donald Trump in his current “president in spite of himself” phase. In this case, the character also happens to be a vessel for Satan.
The Trump analogue in Rapture-Palooza is Robinson as blowhard Idaho politico Earl Gundy. Director Paul Middleditch begins at the end of days, with the good folks all magicked up to heaven, while the wretches stay behind on Earth to deal with their slow transition into hell. Rechristening himself “the Beast,” Gundy seizes on the chaos that follows humankind’s great reckoning, and muscles his way into office through deception and power-mad force. He even steals the national nuclear codes and annihilates major metropolitan areas at random. (Sorry, Chicago.) Gundy is thin-skinned, but limitlessly egotistical. He’s an unreasonable boss who issues insane demands, then threatens the employees who don’t meet them. His underlings have no idea how to work with him. They try in vain to guess what he wants to hear and tell it to him. He’s obsessed with sex and feminine beauty, and he echoes Trump’s vocal prejudices — except, for obvious reasons, the anti-black undercurrents of Trump’s white-supremacist fans. Gundy is a regrettably familiar figure.
But after a while, all the right-minded characters get used to their new Satanic-dictator-cum-president. The wrinkle that separates Rapture-Palooza from other apocalypse comedies is just how casual everyone acts during Armageddon. Protagonists Lindsey and Ben (Kendrick and Freaks and Geeks’ John Francis Daley, all grown-up except for his face, which has remained mysteriously unchanged) eventually adjust to their hellacious status quo. As Lindsey puts it, “After long enough, you can get used to pretty much anything.” The little locusts that bite people and scream “SUFFER!” are irritating. So are the blood rains and the foul-mouthed crows smack-talking humans from phone lines. But they’re just annoyances. Even the giant flaming rocks hurtling through the sky lose their dazzle after a while. After Ben and Lindsey watch a fireball obliterate their idiot buddy Travis, they just sigh defeatedly and walk away. It’s just another day for them.
Some day soon, America will face the same feeling about Donald Trump in the White House: we’ll wake up and for some of us, it will just feel like another day. There’s been a lot of talk over the past week about “normalizing” the openly racist, sexist, and even fascist statements Trump and his advisors have made. The battle to keep him out of office may be lost, but the quest to express the ongoing urgency of the present situation has only just begun. Already, major news outlets have started to write about him in terms reserved for legitimate, rational leaders, and viewers have reacted in horror. People took a lot of flak for busting out an official President Trump cover, especially since the publication’s own Natasha Stoynoff had just written a controversy-stirring article about Donald Trump sexually harassing her. The world has begun the process of acclimating to our new reality, and the fervent anti-Trump camps have pushed back, urging those disturbed by the notion of a president appointing a white supremacist and self-avowed “Leninist” to Cabinet positions to hold onto that sense of horror. John Oliver rallied his viewers around the cry of “This is not normal” during his first post-election broadcast, and a handful of major publications have joined the effort to rail against Trump fading into acceptability.
That insidious process of normalization is both the comic engine that makes Rapture-Palooza go, and its best shot at taking on meaning beyond its humorous surface. Middleditch’s impression of hell is goofy, but the way hell’s inhabitants process their situation rings true. Ben and Lindsey love each other, but express anxiety about bringing a child into such a damaged world. Ben’s father, a sniveling sycophant marvelously played by comedian Rob Corddry, hires on as Gundy’s protection and starts defending the tyrant once he realizes how much he has to gain. “Is the Devil a bad guy?” becomes a two-sided issue, just another debate topic. Even with half the Earth’s population missing, and dead-eyed wraiths striding around, life has a weird way of marching on.
Lindsey and Ben’s half-baked quest to topple the Beast only gets going when they realize they could and should have it so much better. They allow themselves to be subjected to so many general indignities, but they only work on improving their lives when their problems turn specific and personal — when Gundy decides Lindsey will be his eternal bride and mother of his Satanic spawn. And fighting back doesn’t turn out to be particularly difficult. (The film isn’t big on logistics, or fine plot details.) Middleditch posits the optimistic idea that the most important step toward effecting change is working up the will to resist. Evil can only flourish, he suggests, when everyone stops thinking about it as a thing to be stopped.
The analogy between the film and real-life upheavals starts to break down as Rapture-Palooza rolls into its third act, in which Lindsey and Ben accidentally murder Jesus with a laser, God appears in the form of Ken Jeong, and a poorly placed boombox negates the eternal struggle between good and evil. Ludicrous comic premises aside, Rapture-Palooza contains some earnest wisdom about how to survive in a frustrating “new normal” without accepting it. To keep on trucking from day to day in harsh conditions, people tend to develop thicker skin and grow jaded, for fear of spending their whole lives hysterically weeping, like Lindsey’s mother. (Ana Gasteyer plays that character with manic commitment: she got drafted to heaven, then kicked out after a day for being overly judgmental.) But while desensitization may make it easier to live through the moment, it can be just as lethal.
Rapture-Palooza’s most meaningful material doesn’t come from Lindsey and Ben’s mission to retake their world. It comes from their gradually escalating willingness to try. They’re a pair of profoundly average nobodies, and as they surprise themselves by actually making a difference, they slowly learn that a revolutionary is just a nobody committed to an idea. Dissatisfaction, discomfort, and the constant belief that this is not right are their most powerful weapons in the fight against evil, and while the film recognizes that that’s not the whole effort, it agrees that it’s a hell of a start. That’s the resonant message Rapture-Palooza leaves with a post-November 8th audience: this is not right, and this cannot ever be allowed to be made to feel right. When the public accepts homophobia, racism, sexism and the like as controversial opinions instead of objective evils, it won’t be the government that has changed, it will be the governed.