The World's End
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, Rosamund Pike
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 23 Aug 2013 (General release); 2013)
The problem with the past is that it is always viewed through the veil of the present. Instead of realizing that things that happened long ago occurred because of the very circumstances and situations that existed at that time, we put it all into a perspective as we see it now, with contemporary wisdom and a wealth of newly learned experiences at our disposal. As a result, things always seem simpler, more innocent, and sometimes, more meaningful than they really were. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is stuck in such a state. After failing to fulfill his school scene destiny ala Britain in the ‘90s, he’s become a bitter, belligerent ass who sees nothing but his own needs as a priority. If hedonism needed a poster boy, it would pass on him as being too obvious.
You see, Gary is still angry that on his last night with his mates—Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Andrew (Nick Frost)—he failed to complete “The Golden Mile”, a pub crawl involving his sleepy little hometown of Newton Haven, 12 drinking establishments, and 12 pints (or more) of ale. Twenty years later, he is still obsessed with it. Spurred on by a personal tragedy, he decides to get the guys back together and try again. Naturally, a lot has changed in two decades. Pete is a henpecked family man, Oliver is a business minded realtor, Steve opened up his own construction business while Andrew is a teetotaler working in corporate UK. They want nothing to do with their youth and find Gary’s suggestion ludicrous.
Yet a “little white lie” finds them back in Newton Haven and working their way from the famed First Post to the object of their inebriated aims, The World’s End. It also finds co-writer/director Edgar Wright back with the two blokes (Pegg and Frost) who turned his tenure in TV (with the brilliant Spaced) into a legitimate film career. As they did previously with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the trio take on tropes that are so well established in the cinematic stratum that mocking them seems unnecessary. But unlike a standard spoof or a forced lampoon, these geniuses use the various cliches and stereotypes as observation - on character, on situation, on viewer expectations, and above all, on the human satire they hope to mine from it.
In this case, The World’s End is indeed a prelude to a possible dystopian future where robots have replaced people - at least temporarily. It’s like The Stepford Wives meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a ‘90s mix tape thrown in for good grooving. At first, the film is fine just giving us the rather pathetic sight of Gary glomming onto what’s left of his disappearing dignity as he tries to find an answer for his current midlife malaise. All of his pals have replaced theirs with the standard social demands—wife, kids, job, money, power, place—but as we soon learn, not everyone is content. They all hold onto a melancholy that needs dealing with. Pete wants to crawl out of his family’s shadow. Oliver is unable to disconnect from his career. Andrew is the beneficiary of one of Gary’s cruelest cons (and a horrible car accident) while Steve holds a torch for a girl (Rosamund Pike) that, at one time, seemed more interested in his flashy, funny friend.
Yet we quickly see that all of them cope a lot better than Gary. He needs something. He needs a spark. In his mind, it will come with a dozen beers and justification of his self-important mythos. But when faced with real horror, when looking into the dead eyes of preprogrammed people, he discovers something deeper. His journey carries The World’s End through the various plot permutations, including numerous dust ups which have a tinge of that patented post-Matrix kung fu fighting about them. These breaks, these chances for our aging buddies to break out of their shell and kick some ass, add another layer to their lamentable state. Some of the dialogue is so pointed, so insightful as to why we hold onto the past, you’re convinced that Wright and company could sell us the sentiment without all the sci-fi falderal.
But make no mistake about it, the mid movie reveal of the main twist (which, sadly, has been given away in every American ad since the Summer movie season started) takes The World’s End to whole new levels of meaning. There’s the social commentary aspect, the final confrontation with the powers that be (and what it says about humanity and our misguided hubris in general), and the finale which finds yet another possible path for these movie masters to manipulate (hopefully they have George Miller on speed dial). Through it all, we come to care for these characters, to root for their survival and hope they have an answer when the denouement demands one. Of course, Pegg’s Gary is only focused on one thing, completing the crawl. Everyone else just wants to save their own skins.
Because it is done with heart as well as humor, because it bandies about familiar speculative fiction elements without wholly giving into said source’s demands, The World’s End stands on its own. It is as different from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as each of those films were/are to each other. Pegg plays a lout here, a truly hateful sort who only grows on us because of his perpetual cheekiness. When we finally realize why he is doing this, we become even more enamored of Pegg/Wright’s choices. Marsan and Freeman find nice beats within their button down dorkiness while Considine shines as a lovesick loner. Frost, however, is the real revelation. He’s not the smart assed slacker from the zombie stomp, nor is he the good natured buffoon from the hyperactive cop comedy. Instead, he’s a man filled with loss - his joy is gone, his family is in flux, and his best mate in the whole world won’t acknowledge how screwed up he is. Add in the accident which caused their disconnect and you’ve got an unlikely group of heroes with a history of human complexity to deal with.
As with the rest of their post-modern Monty Python product, Wright, Pegg, and Frost turn The World’s End into a classic comedy with enough depth to defy even the most massive expectations. It derives a great deal of pleasure out of the pain within each character and the narrative contrivance fuels a feeling of finality that makes us pine for more. Hopefully, this isn’t the last time we see the trio in action. Considering the movies they’ve made together, such an absence would be a crime against comedy.