Friday, August 23, 2013

In Theaters: THE WORLD'S END (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Edgar Wright.  Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.  Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, David Bradley, Rafe Spall, Michael Sarne, voice of Bill Nighy. (R, 113 mins)

It's been nine years since Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg gave us the sleeper hit zombie homage SHAUN OF THE DEAD, followed in 2007 by the cop/buddy movie tribute HOT FUZZ.  For the final part of their so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" (named after the ice cream bar that appears in all three films), we find a more thoughtful and mature team of filmmakers.  They were always gifted with a knack for strong characterization that really made the films connect with fans, but THE WORLD'S END is something they couldn't have made a decade ago.  It's a film about entering middle age, a time when maybe your best years are behind you and you find your dreams didn't come true.  It's about letting go of youth or stubbornly refusing to grow up.  It's surprisingly heartfelt and often devastatingly poignant, all wrapped in a hilarious story that involves a sort-of alien invasion and gives Wright and Pegg the chance to once again pay tribute to a beloved genre that had a major impact on them.

In 1990, on the night of the last day of school, five friends attempted a pub crawl of the twelve watering holes in their hometown of Newton Haven.  They never finished it, and while they made attempts to keep in touch and remained friends in pairs for a few years, they largely went their separate ways as a quintet and on to their adult lives.  Everyone that is, except ringleader Gary King (Pegg), a legendary hellraiser in his youth who now, at 40, continues to behave like it's 1990 and he's 18 years old.  He's been in and out of rehab for alcohol and drug abuse, still wears the same Sisters of Mercy tee, drives the same car, listens to the same mix tapes, and hangs out at the same pubs in Newton Haven.  Gary wants to, as he states it, "put the band back together," and reunite the old gang and complete the pub crawl.  Three of the other four--divorced building contractor Steven (Paddy Considine), high-strung real estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman), and car salesman Pete (Eddie Marsan)--reluctantly agree to return to their hometown, primarily out of morbid curiosity.  The other is Andy (Nick Frost), a corporate attorney who had a huge falling out with Gary in the mid '90s and hasn't spoken to any of the others since.  There's vague mentions of an "accident" that was the last straw for Andy, who hasn't had a drink since.  Andy wants nothing to do with Gary, but is compelled to go along when Gary repays him £600 he borrowed years earlier and mentions that he just lost his mother to cancer.  Feeling sorry for Gary and giving him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he's grown up, Andy surprises the others by showing up for the big night out, set to finish up at the 12th pub, The World's End.

It quickly dawns on the others that Gary hasn't changed a bit, especially when Andy finds out that Gary hit the others up for £200 each before visiting him (his mother isn't dead, either).  The pubs all look generically alike ("Starbucking," Steven calls it) and the four career guys are content catching up with one another but Gary's obsession with getting shitfaced--and mocking Andy for drinking water--soon causes tempers to flare.  It's around this time that Gary gets in a fight with a teenager in the men's room only to find that the kid is a robot-like creature filled with blue blood.  The guys finally notice how strangely the townspeople are behaving, almost as if there's been some otherworldly takeover of all of Newton Haven.  Agreeing that something's wrong and not wanting to draw attention to themselves, the guys decide to carry on with the crawl even as the situation worsens and they're pursued from pub to pub by an increasing horde of Newton Havenites seemingly possessed by an alien intelligence.

Wright and Pegg do a wonderful job establishing these characters and slyly use such things as "Starbucking" as a way of foreshadowing events to come (even the names of the pubs are used as indicators of plot developments that take place at each one).  SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ were both intelligently-constructed, character-driven stories cleverly disguised as genre spoofs, and to that degree, THE WORLD'S END, with its riffing on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and John Carpenter movies, sticks to their formula.  But there's a dark melancholy streak to THE WORLD'S END, the kind of which comes with maturity and middle age.  We all know characters like the five here--some of us maybe are these characters.  Every group has the one guy--in this case, Oliver--whose sister (Rosamund Pike as Sam) fooled around with at least one of his buddies.  Every group has the guy who got his balls busted a little more than others (Pete).  Go to your hometown and there's probably a guy like Gary hanging out at one of the local bars.  He may not be a goth guy or a headbanger--maybe he's a once-legendary jock still telling stories about the big game 25 years earlier and still wearing his varsity jacket if it fits.  Throughout the course of the Cornetto Trilogy, Wright and Pegg have approached genre spoofing as intelligently and as thoughtfully any filmmakers ever have, using them to create surprisingly real characters with thematic relevance to the genre being parodied.  Making an alien invasion spoof is easy.  Populating it with strong, believable characters who reinforce the genre staples while allowing the film to tell its own story takes a little more effort.

While THE WORLD'S END has a terrific ensemble (Pierce Brosnan also turns up as their old headmaster), it is, perhaps more than SHAUN and HOT FUZZ, very much Simon Pegg's film.  Largely considered simply a "comic actor" and onboard to add levity to the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and STAR TREK films, Pegg uses THE WORLD'S END to establish himself as a legitimate actor.  As Gary, he brilliantly and sometimes painfully conveys the desperation lurking just under the cocky bravado.  When his big night starts falling apart and he's pressed about why he's so obsessed with the pub crawl, his outburst of "It's all I have!" is just heartbreaking.  Pegg has turned in one of the great movie performances of this year, and it'll never happen, but it's one that deserves to be remembered come awards season (it's also interesting against-type casting to have Pegg, and not Frost, playing the perpetually juvenile fuck-up). THE WORLD'S END might not be quite as rapid-fire hilarious as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and while that film and HOT FUZZ are still as enjoyable as they were when they were brand new, THE WORLD'S END is the most surprisingly substantive of the trilogy, offering a bit more to chew on that you'd expect from a movie getting dumped at the end of the summer.

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