As an avowed Anglophile and a major devotee of that peculiarly British brand of comedy couched in discomfort (e.g., Channel 4’s sitcoms Peep Show and Fresh Meat; anything involving Steve Coogan’s obnoxiously desperate character Alan Partridge; everything that Ricky Gervais does, The Office, Extras, etc.), I count myself among the fans of director Edgar Wright. So I was primed for The World’s End, Wright’s latest collaboration with the clever and witty actor-writer team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
The World’s End, is the third in what the Wright-Pegg-Frost trio has whimsically dubbed The Cornetto Trilogy. The reference is to those prepackaged ice-cream cones, and you’d have to see all three films to get the slim connection. The real connective thread is that each feature is a comedic take on a specific film genre. I particularly loved Shaun of the Dead, a frankly hilarious and cheerfully gory parody of your standard George Romero zombie-apocalypse flick that presaged the recent flurry of TV and film adventures in zombie-dom. Following Shaun, Hot Fuzz was a send-up of latter-day British crime thrillers that found the three creative conspirators in fine form, albeit slightly less anarchic than when they were confronting the undead.
Now we get to The World’s End. (Spoiler alert!) We’ve seen the entire world in jeopardy on the big screen numerous times via sci-fi films including 1951’s When Worlds Collide, 1998’s Deep Impact, and 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. But The World’s End, with a title that may or may not portend an apocalyptic crisis, is more concerned with the fate of five former schoolmates as they reunite in their hometown to attempt a brain-cell-blasting pub crawl that they never completed 20 years before. Conveniently enough, the last scheduled stop in their marathon drinking binge is a pub called The World’s End.
Facing his 40s and his own personal apocalypse, Gary (Pegg), the group’s ringleader from high school days, has fallen on hard times. He figures that he can turn his life around if he can just get his four now-estranged pals to leave behind their successful big-city lives for a weekend getaway to the haunts of their youth. There, they can finally finish the pub crawl that got away. Through trickery, Gary convinces the reluctant foursome to make the trip home, but they don’t expect the strange and seemingly sinister changes that have gone down in their once-familiar corner of quaint small-town England. They’re about to learn a hard lesson: Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be — nor is the place where they grew up.
With its mix of comedy, B-movie action, and an underlying poignancy, The World’s End is strengthened by the presence of some very accomplished British actors — Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and TV’s Sherlock, Paddy Considine of The Bourne Ultimatum and In America, and Eddie Marsan of Happy-Go-Lucky and TV’s Ray Donovan — as three of Gary’s once and future drinking buddies. And though it’s no surprise that Frost is on board here as the beleaguered corporate functionary Andy, he gives a surprisingly touching performance as a man who has settled rather than strived in his life and is confronting a measure of regret. Of course, he’s funny as hell, too.
Other nice surprises in the ensemble include Rosamund Pike as the ex-high school hottie who is still an object of desire for two of the pub crawlers, and Pierce Brosnan as a onetime mentor to the quintet.
His fellow cast members aside, Pegg is the chaotic core of The World’s End, leading this demented odyssey to its inevitable conclusion. Unlike the genial, jovial presence he brings to the role of Scotty in the rebooted Star Trek movies, his Gary is willfully toxic, borderline pathetic, and darkly hilarious as he and his comrades get increasingly plastered and suspicious of their surroundings. The beauty of The World’s End is its ability to balance comedy and fantastical action while blithely addressing the sometimes-brutal road to adulthood and the crucial necessity of taking responsibility for your actions.
To date, Wright has directed one American feature film, an adaptation of the Manga-style coming-of-age comic-book series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I enjoyed that movie’s antic mix of cartoonish live action and animated video-game-style segues. But it’s the work Wright does with Pegg and Frost that really knocks me out. And The World’s End is their most thoroughly satisfying effort — so far.