The World’s End (2013): Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, directed by Edgar Wright. Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsam, and Rosamund Pike. Also, Finch. Running Time: 109 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest (and, for me, the most enjoyable) twist in The World’s End is getting to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost swap their standard roles from the previous two works in what is now, apparently, called the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, for those of you who don’t know). In both of those films, Pegg (known, sadly, to most Americans as “the new Scotty guy”) plays the stiff-collared straight man, while Nick Frost takes over duties as the quirky and quotable, and possibly insane, best friend. Here, the roles are reversed- Nick Frost is the serious one, and Simon Pegg the running punch line. While their image-defying performances and their characters’ relationship to each other is easily the strongest part of the film, The World’s End brings enough of everything else to the table to make this one of the must-see movie of the year, and it’s a refreshing start to the months of “serious” movie releases we have waiting in the batter’s box.
Simon Pegg is Gary King, a washed-out, drugged-out, alcoholic wreck of a man, who, after a particularly aggravating AA meeting, decides to rope the old gang back together (i.e., he lies and coerces) for a mid-life stab at the Golden Mile- twelve unique and idiosyncratic pubs in their hometown of Newtown Haven. The goal? A pint at every bar (twelve in total, if not more) by the end of the night. Their previous attempt (upon completion of high school) ended just short of pub #10, leaving Gary with what seems to be several decades’ worth of regrets rattling around in his man-child mind.
The gang is a glorious collection of middle-aged, grade-A British acting talent- in addition to Nick Frost as Gary’s “former” best friend Andy, we have Martin “The Bagster” Freeman as Oliver, Eddie Marsam as Peter, and Paddy Consinine as Steven. Although the show-stealing performances come from Frost and Pegg, each of these actors bring a welcome level of subtlety (and even dignity) to a story that, by the third act, is pretty much bathing in its own outlandishness. Viewers used Shaun or Fuzz might actually be surprised by how the first third of the movie slowly builds up an excellent story around its very human characters, with no hint of the sheer insanity waiting around the corner. One of the most moving scenes in the entire film involves Peter suddenly coming face-to-face with one of the bullies that tormented him as a child.
If the movie had stuck to that- a mid-life-crisis/buddy comedy flick with a message about the waste of a life spent in the glass- it would have been an excellent enough film, perhaps even a great one. However, Wright (never being one for restraint) doesn’t let things stay quiet for long. As the friends begin their trek though the Newtown Haven pubs, they discover that the town has been “Starbucked” to an alarming degree. The interior of the bars all look the same, the beer tastes the same, and you can even order food there (gasp!). Furthermore, old friends and acquaintances who should remember them barely even glance their way. The guys (or at least some of them) grow more concerned when Peter’s sister, Sam, shows up at one of the pubs and reveals that she’s noticed the strange changes as well.
I won’t spoil the twist that eventually comes out of this, but when it hits, it comes in hard and fast, and doesn’t let up until right before the very end, when the movie takes another surprising turn and stops the action dead in its tracks; whereupon the characters (and the “villain” of the movie) face off and, in essence, philosophically hash out what the jumbled events we just saw could mean for human society. Typical? No. Unexpected? Yup. Possible killjoy for some people? Probably, but if there’s one thing I love about this movie (and about Edgar Wright’s works in general), it’s that he doesn’t have one iota of interest in fulfilling your preconceived notions of how a “proper” movie should conduct itself.
Even though World’s End finally goes just as over-the-top insane as the previous Cornetto works, it never stops being a film centered around nostalgia and the mechanics of middle-aged friendships. Frost and Pegg are the focus, but each of the other characters (even the sister, Sam, who rushes in and out of the plot faster than I would have liked) have their own quiet moments, and none of them miss a beat. And although the initial (and very well done) dive into the ravages of alcoholism via Gary King gets shunted to the side somewhat, Simon Pegg gets more than a few last scenes to remind us just how very sad a life lived like his can turn out, even if it (sort of) allows him to figure out what’s going on in the town before anyone else does.
The effect of Wright’s unique and bizarre editing style must also be given its due, as always. He has a fascinating way of drawing attention to the tiniest, most mundane details of daily life. At the first few pubs the boys visit, the filling of each beer glass is shot and edited like a judge pronouncing weighty sentences, with each pull of the lever loudly echoing through the theater (making the tinny sound of Andy’s water being poured all the funnier). Another scene provides a textbook example of how to properly employ Doors songs in your movie. If I were to think of any complaints concerning the technical side of the film, I would have to say that the use of shaky cam in some of the barroom fight scenes (of which there are many- and I’m not saying against who…or what) is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from the man who directed the stylized, video-game-adulating Scott Pilgrim.
I’m determined to stay vague about the ultimate plot of World’s End, along with its various “messages,” because this is the kind of film I think people should go into fairly cold. I knew the basic twist going in, but there’s so much more to the movie than that that I was still constantly surprised, and was constantly laughing. It has its moments of solid, emotional depth, but it never tries to be (nor claims to be) anything more than what it is- fun. The World’s End is, along with Pacific Rim and Key of Life, one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a movie this year.