After a series of mishaps involving a slew of technical difficulties (at one point a guy across the aisle from me looked back and informed the rest of us, “He’s literally kicking the projector. I am not even kidding.”), I managed to see the The World’s End last night. I am a giant fan of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. I’ve seen nearly all their films in the theater. I love Spaced with all my mind and heart and soul. I heart Scott Pilgrim. Fuck, I even like Paul. So please believe me that I hate typing these words: I think the Cornetto Trilogy has just produced its Jedi.
I mean, don’t misunderstand me, it is still better than Jedi. It just doesn’t stand up too well compared to the other Cornetto flavors. It’s prickly and jarring, and I’ve wrestled with whether or not I loved it since approximately 1:30 this morning.
Basic non-spoilery plot synopsis: Andy (Frost) Ollie (Martin Freeman, who was cheered ecstatically on every appearance) Steven (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) are talked into a pub crawl by their high school friend, Gary King (Pegg), a washed-up addict who refuses to move on with his life. They leave London to go home to the idyllic-looking town of Newton Haven and attempt the historic Golden Mile, a pub crawl that leads from one end of town to the other, involving 12 stops in quintessentially British pubs including The First Post, The Old Familiar, and of course, The World’s End. Along the way they start to notice that things are weird in the town, but they put it down to their own nostalgic memories until a larger, sci-fi-tinged conspiracy is revealed.
The World’s End has been advertised as the sci-fi/apocalypse installment of the Cornetto Trilogy. While Shaun of the Dead tackled zombies (and romantic comedies), and Hot Fuzz leapt through the air whilst firing two guns at overblown action films, TWE was supposed to skewer sci-fi tropes. I think one of the problems I had with the film is simply that it never feels like they’re in love with that genre (Honestly, Paul did a better job with the sci-fi element) and there isn’t the same constant rate of reward for viewers who are reference-hunting. However, the film they’ve made has some wonderful moments, and a weird, unsettling tone: I just don’t think it comes together in the end as successfully as Shaun and Hot Fuzz.
The whole film feels like they were torn between making the apocalyptic movie they’ve been talking about for over a decade, and a much grittier black comedy about what it feels like to go home and realize that you’ve gotten old, and discovering that the real horror isn’t that the cute boy in the Sisters of Mercy T-shirt is gone forever, it’s that no one wants him back. The cool rock star kid that you still are in your mind is irrelevant as far as your friends and family are concerned; they just want you to grow the hell up already. That film, in its own right, is terrifying, but then suddenly everyone’s fighting creatures that might be robots, and the mood shifts three of four more times, and then it’s off to the next pub.
One aspect that I thought worked beautifully was the swap of the usual Pegg and Frost characters. I love it when Simon Pegg plays villains, or even just miscreants, and Gary is a great one. A total asshole, burnout, failure, who might have a heart in there somewhere, but who also might just be a self-centered jerk all the way down. The film gets a lot of mileage out of showing us flashes of a better Gary, while still allowing Pegg to go darker and darker. Meanwhile Nick Frost gets to play a much more intelligent character than usual, which is a joy to see. Andy is the hyper-responsible, sober one, exhausted by Gary’s expectations, and taking a mean glee in knocking him down and insulting him to his face. The other three men in the group are also great, but are never given as much to do, and when Ollie’s sister shows up she’s expected to do a bit of the emotional lifting as the lone woman.
The interplay between the five men is marvelous, and all of the pub scenes are hilarious. When Edgar Wright puts his cast at a table with a round of pints, they create a particularly British comic magic. And the movie is really, really fun—there are some great callbacks to previous films, some great wordplay, the integration of modern slang into the 40-year-olds’ speech is a great touch, as they throw ‘WTFs’ and ‘totes’ around while listening to The Soup Dragons and Suede. (A note on that as well: the soundtrack is goddamn magnificent.) The action sequences as always strike a deft balance between funny and gory.
However, I thought that the heart was lacking in this one—where the emotional moments in Shaun and Hot Fuzz were deeply felt, TWE always seemed to be skimming over the surface of the characters’ pasts. For instance, about halfway through we get a revelation about Peter’s time in high school days that none of the others remember. They all listen sympathetically until the moment is punctured by Gary’s demand to do shots. The scene is an obvious callback to the similarly serious moments interrupted by Nick Frost’s characters in Shaun and Hot Fuzz, and it could have worked in much the same way, except that we’re only getting Pete’s revelation in a burst of expository dialogue that comes out of nowhere.
Likewise, the pub crawl structure is perfect for that movie, and the attempt at facing middle-age is an excellent idea. But the lack of connection to the characters’ pasts becomes a problem here, too. Since the pubs aren’t given any character beyond their names, I couldn’t tell you how The Two Headed Dog differs from The Famous Cock, even before they’re “Starbucked.” I couldn’t really tap into the characters’ sense of loss as they explored their old hometown, because I never knew what they were missing. If I walked into the Winchester, I’d know I was walking into the Winchester. If I woke up in Sandford today, I’d be able to find the church, Somerfield, and, for that matter, the town’s pub. But nothing about Newton Haven (present or flashback version) seems unique.
Shaun and Hot Fuzz were both excellent at introducing characters and then revealing more of them later, showing us new angles to things we had previously taken at face value. TWE introduces people in a certain way, and then… they stay that way. And the film doesn’t even exploit the most obvious comic thread in going home again—where are their families, neighbors, or friends who stayed behind? Everyone who’s ever left a small town for the big city has at least a few Friends Who Stayed, or The Sister Who Married the Guy You Hated in 8th Grade, or Parents Who Still Live in the House where You Grew Up, and It’s Weird Cause When You Go Home You Have To Sleep In Your Old Room With Your Girlfriend—something. But this movie does nothing with that, or at least nothing that actually feels real.
I want to end on one of the positive notes, though, and TWE makes that easy for me by saving the best part of the film for last. The final third is a celebration of anarchism, a sort of giant, joyous fuck you, in the best possible way. I don’t want to give too much away about what exactly the guys end up fighting, so I’ll just say that at its heart The World’s End is about people who want to be free to make their own mistakes. And for that, despite its flaws, I loved it.
Leah Schnelbach went to a screening of the Cornetto Trilogy but wound up seeing it out of order, later than anticipated, with an extra bonus viewing of Shaun of the Dead. It’s been a long night.