Friday, September 06, 2013
In Theaters: The World's End
It may have taken six years, but Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have finally finished the "Cornetto" trilogy. After red zombie horror/romance and a yellow giallo mystery, we reach blue, which is apparently the color of… well, that would be telling. Well I guess it is sort of melancholy, and The World's End is a film primarily about middle age and the fact that you can never go home again. Though more an ensemble piece than a buddy picture, the film is still dominated by Pegg and Nick Frost, giving performances that flip their normal dynamic, and the results are not only extremely funny but dramatically compelling. It's a film about the inevitability of change and how that can be the most terrifying thing of all.
Gary King (Pegg) is an alcoholic who has just quit rehab and who now dwells on one night of his life- June 22, 1990, when he and his friends, having just finished school, attempted a massive pub crawl known as the "Golden Mile"- 12 pints in 12 pubs in their nondescript backend town. They never made it that far, and now, he wants to gather the old gang and do it properly. But the old gang are now mature adults, and his former best friend Andy (Frost) has quit drinking. He gets them to come along anyway, but the old town isn't what it used to be- the pubs have all been bought out and homogenized, and nobody recognizes them from the old days. But before the night can come to a premature end, Gary gets into a scrap with a local youth and discovers that something very strange is going on.
What that is, I feel I shouldn't say entirely. A lot of the fun of the film is in how it unfolds, working entirely well as a story of the bitter dregs of nostalgia, and then shifting gears so abruptly we don't know what to expect next. It never really abandons the earlier themes, but the tone becomes more manic and intense. The science fiction aspects of the story seem to owe a lot to Douglas Adams, Nigel Kneale, and a little bit of Doctor Who, but as with Pegg and Wright's earlier genre pastiches, it's solid enough in itself that it would work as a story without the jokes. It's nowhere near the masterful plot construction of Hot Fuzz, but there are solid premises and structures underneath that allow the film to move quickly from mood to mood without it feeling awkward or unnatural.
This is much more of an ensemble piece than the previous Cornetto films, though Pegg and Frost's characters are at the center. A decent amount of time is given to Paddy Considine as Steven Prince, a man who has been nursing an unresolved crush on one of his friend's sisters (who is played charmingly low key by Rosamund Pike.) Eddie Marsan as Peter does well as a man with an outwardly content life who is still haunted by the bullying he received as a teenager (though his bully doesn't seem to remember any of it.) There are a number of amusing cameos and familiar faces and voices, but Pegg probably impresses the most playing a walking disaster of a human being, and it's impressive to see Frost stretch himself as well.
This is a film with a lot of desperation in it, and it could easily have gone awry. We don't necessarily like Gary King, but we know people like him, and he's just outwardly glib and funny enough that his horrible character flaws are tolerable on-screen. It does help that there's some hilarious banter in the script, with loads of small throwaway gags (such as Gary's belief that King Arthur fought the Battle of Hastings.) The filmmakers are smart enough to limit his emotional development to what's attainable, and leave the romance subplot for someone else entirely.
An important accomplishment is that the film manages to come up with a very solid rationale for why the pub crawl continues even after plainly unnatural things start happening- at least, it's solid enough to match with Gary's bullheaded devotion to reliving the one night everything seemed to go right for him. This means that things don't get properly horrific until they absolutely have to, and even then it's just in time for another big surprise.
The film's messiness ends up being both a hindrance and a strength. If it lacks Hot Fuzz's elegance, the results do have a vivid drunken intensity and a sense of spiraling chaos. Trying to rank or debate the relative merits of the three films gets difficult, so I'll simply say that this is on a level with the first two; all three do a great job of fusing genre homage, satire of British social mores, and stories of individual growth. Wright and Pegg are by no means done collaborating (I'm still waiting on Don't, guys), but the thematic Cornetto cycle has reached a suitably Earth-shattering conclusion.
Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright