“THE WORLD’S END” (Movie Review)
Simply put: They’ve done it again. Just as they did with zombies in SHAUN OF THE DEAD and police action in HOT FUZZ, the Brit Pack of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost find lots of big laughs in the otherworldly invasion/apocalypse subgenre, while infusing THE WORLD’S END with brains and heart that help the humor stick.
The difference is that this time, the genre elements don’t make themselves known until about the half-hour mark, when they provide a hell of a turning point for both the story and characters. Up to this point, THE WORLD’S END (opening in the U.S. August 23) is a knockabout character comedy with a rueful undercurrent, powered by Pegg as Gary, a 40ish bloke with the heart—and maturity level—of a teenager. As recounted in an opening montage that shows off director Wright’s typical eye for amusing fast-cut detail, Gary and his four best mates once attempted an epic pub crawl dubbed “The Golden Mile,” hitting all 12 of the bars in their suburban hometown of Newton Haven. They didn’t even come close to making it to the final establishment, The World’s End, and Gary has become inspired to pick up that gauntlet and round up the old gang for another try.
There’s one small obstacle: the others now all have lives, working respectable jobs (though Peter, played by Eddie Marsan, labors under the thumb of his father at a car dealership) and some of them married (though Paddy Considine’s architect Steven has just gotten divorced). Peter and Steven, along with real-estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman), are convinced fairly easily to humor Gary’s mad ambition, but lawyer Andy (Frost) is a harder sell; not only has he given up drinking, but he bears a deep, longstanding grudge against Gary over an undisclosed prior incident.
While Pegg and Frost here reverse their straight-man/slob roles from SHAUN and FUZZ, their comic chemistry is as dynamic as ever. Their three co-stars—Marsan and Considine demonstrating impressive comic chops after previously specializing in dramatic roles—also create fully lived-in characters, and the whole ensemble truly feel like they’ve known each other since their youth, settling back into old rhythms and ribaldries (new fave raunch term: the “marmalade sandwich”), as well as rivalries and resentments. Serving as a catalyst for a bit of the combativeness is a charming Rosamund Pike as Oliver’s sister Sam, still residing in Newton Haven and the object of the tentative Steven and the much more forward Gary’s affections.
The boys are so consumed with each other’s company for the first few stops, they don’t notice at first that their old hometown is a little…off. Sure, the formerly distinctive old pubs (each bearing a name that in some way reflects what goes on there) have now been altered to have the same generic layout, and a few passersby look at them funny, but it’s only when Gary has a confrontation with a belligerent patron in one bar’s rest room that the truth of what’s going on in Newton Haven comes to light. That setpiece plunges the movie into full-bore science fiction/thriller/action territory, as the quintet have to figure out how to protect themselves, and possibly the world, from an evidently alien threat. That, and determine what exactly to call the strange beings they’re confronting.
Said conversation about nomenclature exemplifies THE WORLD’S END’s very happy marriage between extraordinary subject matter and ordinary-guy joviality, as well as the quick-witted dialogue that Wright and Pegg’s script is stuffed with to bursting. Even as the situation becomes life-and-death, the guys (who decide to continue The Golden Mile so as not to attract undue attention by attempting to escape) respond with a steady stream of funny observations and exchanges that keeps the audience laughing and on their side. They also prove to be surprising adept at fighting off their attackers, with Jackie Chan Stunt Team veteran Bradley James Allan choreographing a series of terrific comic brawls that the actors (doing much of their own stuntwork) throw themselves into with enthusiasm. Their opponents’ inhuman side, and giddily gruesome destruction, is brought off splendidly by prosthetics and animatronics supervisors Waldo Mason and Matt Denton and the visual FX by Double Negative.
The sci-fi side of the story becomes more pronounced as THE WORLD’S END nears its climax at the eponymous last stop on The Golden Mile, taking a few very unexpected, mind-tickling turns and making room for a welcome vocal cameo by a Wright-Pegg-Frost regular. In keeping with its predecessors in the “Cornetto Trilogy,” though (yes, that UK ice cream brand makes a cameo, at a point where you’ll least expect it), THE WORLD’S END never loses sight of the humanity at the center of its chaos. The fivesome and their friendship, even if it’s tenuous at times, are established so well that we can seriously root for them during their adventure and feel for them during the many small moments of poignance, all while having great laughs throughout. Oh, and just as in SHAUN and FUZZ, the soundtrack of carefully selected pop songs is pretty killer too.