Collectively, this threesome has picked up the nickname "The Cornetto Trilogy" after a British frozen dessert cone that has the loosest possible connection to the respective plots. They're all uproariously funny films with a masterful command of suspense and action beats, which touch on themes of a man-child grappling with maturity issues in the face of an outlandish crisis. Simon Pegg co-wrote all three films and plays the leads, giving a particularly great turn in The World's End.
Pegg portrays Gary King, a nearly forty year-old ne'er-do-well who failed to grow out of his party-hearty teenage years in the town of Newton Haven. Not only does he drive the same old beater he bought in 1989, he has same mix-tape still in the stereo. Gary obsesses over the night of his high school graduation, when he and four mates attempted to complete his town's "Golden Mile," having a pint at each of twelve historic pubs, from The First Post to The World's End. They came up short that night, but Gary, at a personal crossroads, seeks to reunite his friends and retrace The Golden Mile, this time to completion.
The rest have become successful yuppies: mousy Peter (Eddie Marson), wheeler-dealer Oliver (The Hobbit's Martin Freeman), rival Steven (Paddy Considine) and teetotalling Andrew (Nick Frost), Gary's former best friend who nurses a serious but initially mysterious grudge. Against their better judgment, they all agree to humor their former friend and return to Newton Haven for the epic pub crawl.
Their visit proves that you can't go home again, more than they could imagine. At first their notice that some of the historic pubs have been bought up and made into chains, with the first two on the Mile proving hilariously identical. After about 40 minutes into the film, they also learn that something similar has happened to the actual townsfolk, who are no longer what they seem. Though the group enters grave jeopardy, Gary argues that completing the Golden Mile might be their safest strategy. Gary's self-destructive determination offers an example of raw, flawed humanity in the face of something else entirely.
All of Wright's films contain a certain amount of fanboy wish fulfillment, which particularly plays out in the action choreography. In Shaun of the Dead, the title character got to clobber real zombies with a cricket bat. Here, when brawls break out, Gary and his mates turn out to know surprisingly effective fight manuevers. Andrew whips out pro wrestling moves and at one point, armed with two barstools, takes on a pub filled with assailants. If not exactly realistic, the kinetic action gives The World End plenty of kick.
Wright remains a superb cinematic stylist, from his choice of pop songs to his high-speed, extreme close-ups of drinks being poured at each bar. Amid such narrative flash and momentum, it's easy to look past the wit of his and Pegg's scripts. The World's End cleverly riffs on elements from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with some of the sci-fi absurdism of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But almost none of the laughs rely on references, and unlike many new comedies, The World's End seldom substitutes wild profanity or gross-outs for solid punchlines and running gags.
In one example of the film's approach to banter, a friend asks Gary, "Do you know how much trouble you could get into?" and Gary replies "Do you know how much trouble I'm already in?" Pegg embraces the role as a grinning, bouncing-off-the-walls agent of chaos, like an aging Bugs Bunny as a recovering speed freak. He doesn't overlook the character's poignant side, conveying Gary's desperation and worry that, in his attempt to enjoy life to the fullest, the best parts of it passed him by. At heart, he conveys the joie de vivre that allows his old classmates (and the audience) enjoy his company despite his irresponsibility.
For the most part, the sci-fi elements take a backseat to the characterizations, but the two story threads neatly dovetail at the film's climax. The surprising epilogue may divide audiences, but it gives the events some unexpected weight. At the very least, subsequent viewings of The World's End will let audiences study how the name of each pub symbolizes what the blokes encounter there, including "The Mermaid" and "The Beehive." At a time when pop culture seems like an endlessly derivative hall of mirrors containing nothing but retro references, another Wright film proves that it's not the end of the world.
The World's End. 4 stars. Directed by Edgar Wright. Stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost. At area theaters.
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