Monday, August 26, 2013

THE WORLD'S END Is a World-Conquering Capper to Wright, Pegg, and Frost's Modern-Classic Trilogy


- Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz. Two modern action/comedy classics from director Edgar Wright and lead actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Well, add one more to the list. THE WORLD'S END is right up there with the other two entries in Wright's thematically-linked "Cornetto Trilogy." In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that it might just be the best film of the three - a perfect finale to the series that mixes laugh-out-loud comedy, sci-fi insanity, and genuine pathos. One of the best, funniest, and craziest movies of the year, The World's End is also one of the smartest and most emotionally rich. How many movies can both give you a feeling of "this is awesome" in the moment, yet also give you plenty to chew on after leaving the theater? And how many of those will also cause you to laugh your ass off? It's that potent combo that puts the movies of Edgar Wright in a class of their own.

While the first two entries in the Cornetto trilogy were overt genre-spoofs right from the get-go, THE WORLD'S END takes its time to get to the sci-fi weirdness. But all of that build-up is worth it, and the result is a movie that, honestly, could have worked even without the sci-fi (though let's face it, the sci-fi stuff makes it all the sweeter). Wright takes so much time establishing these characters though that there is a real, sincere humanity to the film. And a lot of that centers around Pegg's Gary King.

In his teenage years, Gary took his last name literally. He fancied himself king of the world - a black-clad punk who, along with his posse of young hooligans, raised both middle fingers to the world and felt poised to take it over. Flash-forward to twenty years later, and Gary is still the exact same Gary King he was in high school. Problem is, at age 40, that makes him a pretty pathetic loser - an irresponsible, self-destructive drunk - still living in the past and unable to grow up or mature. Gary tends to look back, not forward, and so he gets in in his head to revisit the most fondly-remembered - yet woefully uncompleted - adventure from his teen years - the Golden Mile pub crawl that he and his mates attempted as teens, back in their hometown of Newton Haven. The crawl was to have seen the gang get a pint each at twelve local pubs, culminating in a final drink at the pub known as The World's End. But alas, the Golden Mile was never finished, and now, decades later, Gary sees finishing the crawl as a way to recapture his lost youth.

It is also, of course, a way for Gary to reconnect with the old gang. While Gary King refused to grow up, his old pals have, perhaps, grown up too much. Martin Freeman's Oliver Chamberlain (aka "The O-Man") became a blue-tooth headset, suit-clad bore. Eddie Marsan's Peter Page became a meek introvert, still haunted by teenage traumas. Paddy Considine's Steven Prince became a douchey car salesman, divorced and dating a young trophy girlfriend while still harboring feelings for his high school crush, Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike). And then there's Nick Frost's Andy Knightley (see any theme with these character names?), who was once Gary's partner in crime and best friend. Andy, once a party animal who never met a pint he didn't like, is now stone-cold sober. Working in a corporate office, he's a different man than the teenage troublemaker that Gary once knew. What's more, Andy has deep-seated resentment for his old friend Gary after a long-past incident that caused a rift between the two. Suffice it to say, Gary hasn't talked to or seen most of the old gang in years, and so rounding them up to once again tackle the Golden Mile won't be easy.

But somehow, he convinces them. The old gang reunites for a trip to Newton Haven. All but Gary are reluctant. All but Gary realize that you truly can't go home again. All but Gary think this is a pretty terrible idea. But as drinks are had and old wounds are laid bare, Gary realizes that something is amiss in his home town.

All of Gary's fears - and all the fears of anyone who was once a cool kid but is now aging - seem to be coming to literal life. Fear that local haunts are becoming homogenized and gentrified. Fear that no one remembers your name or who you were - that you've faded into obscurity. Fear that today's youth doesn't appreciate all the cool stuff that you grew up with. Fear that your once-fun friends are being replaced by suit-and-tie-wearing pod people who've been sapped of their souls by the corporate machine.

Well, turns out, there might be more to Gary's fears than the everyday anxieties of an aging dude approaching middle age. It turns out there may be some *really* crazy $#%& going on in Newton Haven, and it just may be that Gary and his mates are about to witness the literal World's End even as they make their way to the fabled pub of the same name.

When THE WORLD'S END goes full-on sci-fi nuts in its second half ... man, it's glorious. Edgar Wright - as we know from Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - can direct madcap, insane action with stylistic aplomb. He's got a knack for crafting absolutely applause-worthy, hilarious, crazy-ass action that's pretty much unmatched. Most of his movies don't have the slick f/x or high budgets of big Hollywood summer tentpoles, and so there's a manic, hand-crafted, "what the hell, why *not* do this?" aspect to the action that only adds to the sense of fun. But it all starts with the characters. Even as Gary King learns to be there for his friends and not always duck out when there's trouble, the rest of the guys learn to loosen up a bit and find some of their old, youthful fire. Seeing Nick Frost's Andy get progressively drunker and crazier as the movie goes on - fighting like a man possessed (even utilizing many classic WWE-style wrestling moves in the process) - my god, it's a thing of beauty.

Here's the thing though ... it would have been very easy for Wright to make this a simple comedy about old friends getting hammered and happy and working out all their problems. But this is a much more complex and nuanced movie than that. Wright throws in plenty of fantastic, "hell yeah!" sorts of moments that will keep you grinning throughout. But he also never gives in to the temptation to make the film simply a celebration of beer and never growing old. In fact, Gary is the movie's most misguided and troubled character. And for much of the movie, *he* is the asshole. Sure, his friends are a bit uptight. But while they might have a little to learn from Gary, Gary has *a lot* to learn from them. In particular, Andy, whose seemingly boring life is actually a fulfilling one for him, and one that took a lot of guts to create and uphold. Wright smartly doesn't make this movie about proving that either Gary or Andy's life choices were "right." Wright shows us that there's something to be said for Gary's unwillingness to conform, just as there's also something to be said for Andy's maturity, sobriety, and dedication to his family.

At this point, let me stop for a moment to just heap praise upon Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I think this movie cements them as one of the great comedic duos. The fact that they have so much real-life, genuine affection for one another makes their on-screen chemistry that much more natural and hilarious. And that much more heartbreaking when we see their characters at odds. The World's End rather brilliantly subverts the usual Pegg-Frost relationship, tearing it down only to build it back up again as the movie goes.

The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good. Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, and Rosamund Pike are all excellent, and work great together and with Pegg and Frost. And there are a ton of great bit parts and cameos littered throughout the movie. My favorite? A dapper Pierce Brosnan as an old teacher of Gary and Andy's, who proves to be not quite what he seems.

The World's End is, in fact, one of the most dense movies you're likely to see. Not only is each scene packed with dialogue-driven gems and blink-and-you'll-miss-'em visual gags, but there is, like I said, a ton of thematic meat to chew on. I suspect that the movie's epilogue, for example, is going to be discussed and debated among film geeks for many years to come - what does it all mean? How do the strange circumstances that Gary and Andy find themselves in reflect back on the overarching themes of the film? There is that level of food-for-thought to be found here, but there's also another level of just pure hilarity. All I'll say is that the climactic scene of Gary and Andy confronting the movie's Big Bad is a classic - drop-dead funny and raise-your-fist-high awesome.

There is a bit of a feeling of melancholy here. The World's End feels like a definite end to this era of Edgar Wright's career. And you have to wonder: is he too grappling with the same extremes embodied by Gary and Andy in the film? Does he continue to do these scrappy, indie, anything-goes genre mash-ups? Or does he go corporate and "grow up?" I think what makes this movie so resonant is that in some way, we all ask ourselves this same question. And the movie's epilogue sort of says, in a way, that the movies and fantasy and sci-fi present this compelling third option - imagined worlds where epic adventure and thrilling battles go hand-in-hand with the act of becoming a grown-man or grown-woman. It's like Wright and co-writer Pegg end up admitting that they aren't fully satisfied that with either the Gary or Andy way of life, and so hey, here's this other way, and "wouldn't it be great if ..?".

And it's on that note that I think THE WORLD'S END just might be its own sort of masterpiece. And purely as a fan, I have to say a hearty thank you to Wright, Pegg, and Frost for fighting the good fight and making movies that are hilarious, badass, and heartfelt all the same. If this is indeed the end, it's been a hell of a ride.

My Grade: A

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