For The World’s End, two of the most gifted comedic filmmakers on earth, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, give us a movie about five friends who try with inspired desperation to complete a pub-crawl from their youth while dodging attacks from something sinister. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? After all, this is the duo behind Shaun of the Dead, about a supreme retail store slacker who tries to save his town from a zombie invasion, and Hot Fuzz, a remarkably deft mash-up of cop movies and slasher flicks. These are people who, like Quentin Tarantino, love the margins of genre films, and for whom their own art is a form of loving homage. They grew up watching these very movies on late night TV — studying them, dissecting them, finding the good in celluloid so often thought of as nothing more than crap — and with the so-called Cornetto Trilogy (a reference to a brand of British ice cream), that started with Shaun and ends with End, they’ve given movie buffs like me a gift.
Enter protagonist Gary King, now pushing forty but still wearing his favorite Sisters of Mercy concert shirt. Gary is convinced that living life for fun (read: aimless loser) is better than being a corporate schlub like the rest of his friends who were once reckless drunkards. Actually, Gary doesn’t seem to have any friends anymore. And so it is, out of sheer boredom and a need to tap into his past, that he shames and manipulates his old gang into returning to their hometown of Newton Haven to finish a pub-crawl at which they all failed miserably way back in 1990.
The Golden Mile. Twelve pubs. One night. No one wants to join Gary, and, indeed, his old buddies seem perturbed that he even still thinks of that night so long ago. But, one by one, they relent, each for reasons of their own: stuffy Oliver (Martin Freeman); laidback Steven (Paddy Considine); Peter (Eddie Marsan), who suffered horrible bullying as a teen, and is now a livewire of jangles and nerves; and Andy (Nick Frost), Gary’s former BFF, who hasn’t had a drink in more than 16 years, but proves he’s more than willing to do what he needs to do when the chips are down. After mocking the Sisters t-shirt, they set off in Gary’s “Beast,” the very same car he’s owned since 1989, complete with a mixed cassette music tape still in the deck some two decades later. This a man for whom growing up is a sin equivalent to never having heard the Soup Dragons’ “Free.”
There’s a lot of animosity among the friends toward their former fearless leader that only gets worse once they discover that the pubs that once reeked of whisky and cigarette smoke have all been “Starbucked,” as Steven puts it. That’s a phenomenon where every chain store looks the same. The menus are identical. Even the barkeeps are difficult to tell apart. The entire town seems to have taken on a “homogenized corporate retail sameness,” as my best friend Greg likes to say. As they down their pints, the group falls into collective wonder that maybe it’s them who have changed, and not the town. They’re a little bit older. Their hair is grayer. Steven is even referred to as having gone “a little bit wide.” Maybe they just don’t remember things so clearly. After all, they’re no longer in their teens. Suddenly, the Sisters of Mercy t-shirt isn’t so funny anymore. Oliver suggests they all go home. Furious, Gary invites a group of kids to join him for the rest of the crawl. But those kids…something about them isn’t right. They look dead in the eyes.
I’ll stop here, because the joy of The World’s End is in the unfolding of its second half. This is a riotous comedy, slick with film and cultural references, that doesn’t mind segueing from a 70s martial arts action flick to The Children of the Damned with fluid ease. The five friends do monstrous battle throughout Newton Haven — at the pubs, and with a much larger foe — both as a desperate bid to save their lives and to relive a piece of the past that seems to have gotten away from them. There’s a lot of heart in the way these men look back on their younger selves as a sort of time capsule that holds the difference between what they wanted to be and what they’ve become. And along the way, Wright and Pegg subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) skewer the modern age of technology, an epoch with the ability to turn the best of us into mindless drones, and surreptitiously make those of us who remember a day without our gadgets and toys sometimes wish they’d never come into our possession in the first place.
We need more comedies like this, that make us laugh with their intelligence and wit, rather than insult us with a random string of demeaning gross-out humor. Anyone who has ever followed Wright and Pegg on Twitter knows that these are two of the most intelligent people working in comedy today. Pegg has maintained a nice career as the cheerful sidekick in Hollywood blockbusters like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, but it’s here, at home in his beloved British comedies, where his talent really shines. The same goes for frequent collaborator Nick Frost. If you thought he was hysterical in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I can only say that watching him go from corporate lawyer to alcoholic barroom brawler in thirty seconds flat is transcendent.
(Note: The R rating for this movie is absurd. The World’s End is absolutely harmless from first frame to last, with almost nothing offensive in between, save for a few references about sex and an abundance of F-words used in the strictest comedic sense. There is no violence, and the only blood shown is an altogether different color from red. I think there’s absolutely no reason why a reasoned, intelligent young teenager couldn’t watch this movie. Trust me, I’m a doctor.)