They say you never have friends like the ones you have when you’re a teenager. It’s not difficult to understand why. We’re at our most optimistic and potential-filled when we’re young. There’s a reckless abandon that permeates one’s formative years that usually fades with time’s passing. You have friends that are just as reckless as you find yourself, but eventually, you and your friends grow up. As a teenager, you think the world is laid out before you, and that the future is your pearl-containing oyster. As an adult, you learn to settle and function in the life you’ve been given. That same “try anything” mentality and blind loyalty fades because age, by its very nature, makes us more cautious and dissatisfied and adds to our daily interactions more responsibilities and obligations.
Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, the concluding chapter in the Edgar Wright-helmed, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost starring “Cornetto Trilogy”, opens with a nifty bit of exposition, Gary King (Pegg, relishing the chance to play an inherently unlikable character) tells us (and his rehab group) about a time he and his four friends attempted an epic twelve pub Golden Mile, ending at the appropriately titled World’s End pub. They only made it to nine, but it was still a night of celebration, and Gary knew life would never be better than it was that night. As it turns out, he was correct.
Living like a goth, comedic Miss Havisham, Gary King hit the pause button on his life after that night. He dyes his hair the same awful black color (with his non-dyed red beard making the black hair look even stranger), wears the same black trench coat, drives the same barely functioning car, and lives with same reckless abandon he had at seventeen. Alas, he’s now an adult nearing middle age, hurling himself down a woefully self-destructive path, and all he can think of is going back to his hometown, retrying the Golden Mile pub crawl and finally completing the twelve pub trek. Using pleading, deceit, and the same obnoxiously charming manipulation that made him the ruler of his circle of his teenage friends, he persuades his now adult, estranged compatriots to accompany him and finally accomplish what they set out to do over twenty years ago, “for closure.”
What it really does is provide Gary with the chance to prove he can succeed at something after a lifetime littered with failures.We have Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), the bullied nerd of the gang who now works for his father’s car dealership, real estate agent Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), health food, workout obsessed Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) who loves to tell everyone he meets about his young fitness instructor girlfriend, and business executive type Andy Knightley (Nick Frost, in a rare, responsible adult role), who bares Gary some ill will relating to a vaguely referenced “accident.” They’ve all become responsible, obligation-driven adults that Gary views as sell-outs, but he still manages to persuade them to come on one crazy, last adventure. Maybe they feel sorry for him and come out of pity, or maybe deep down, they are no more mature that Gary. The film implies both may be simultaneously true, that perhaps beneath every mature, well-adjusted adult, lives a rambunctious seventeen-year old just bursting to break free. There’s also a female, Oliver’s sister and Gary’s former conquest, Sam who pops up early in the Golden Mile (played with likable wittiness by Rosamond Pike), but let’s be clear: this is a “boy’s club” film through and through.
The guys arrive back in their quaint, British, village, only to find that no one remembers them, and the pubs have been taken over by corporations, or “Starbucked” as Stephen refers to it. However, as they night goes on, they come to realize that something strange and insidious is lurking beneath the seams of their quiet, restful birthplace.
If this is to be the concluding chapter in the “Cornetto Trilogy,” which also includes the brilliant Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it’s easy to see some common themes emerge. All three films pay parodic homages to film genres (Shaun to zombie films, Hot Fuzz to buddy cop action films, and The World’s End to sci-fi tales that warn of the dangers of conformity), all present a sinister undercurrent beneath the mundane, and all three have Edgar Wright’s signature hyper-kinetic cuts that make routine actions seem comically important. However, what this series of films also does so well is blend the most wonderfully absurd comedy with the most genuinely heartfelt sentimentality. It’s difficult to pull off both of these ideas in one film. Usually you find one’s cake is neither had nor eaten. Wright, along with Pegg, Frost, and the rest of his casts manage to make the characters believable and sympathetic, even while violent absurdities explode around them. For all of its insanity, it never loses sight of the nostalgic ache of reconnecting with old friends and seeing how little there’s is to still connect you.
The World’s End is easily the funniest film of the summer, but what’s even more impressive is how emotionally engaging it is. Once the sci-fi element is established and the film doesn’t just go off the rails, but leaps off the rails, picks them up and hurls them with reckless abandon, it would be easy for the film to be just one ridiculous set-up after another. As it is, the film manages to maintain its emotional, heartstrings tugging center even at its most absurd. Simon Pegg’s and Nick Frost’s last film, Paul, felt horribly safe, with its edges filed down to an inoffensive blandness. The World’s End, in contrast, feels brash and daring, and so high energy it’s one step away from needing ADHD medication. The film is scruffy and reckless, and full of so ideas, it hardly knows there to turn next, but that a massive part of the film’s charm. It may be a bit too long, but when it (and the audience) is having this much fun, why worry about a running time? It’s a film whose disparate paths could appear unpleasantly schizophrenic in lesser hands, but Wright’s skillful direction and his cast’s perfectly honed emotional and comedic instincts ensure the film maintains the wonderful unpredictability of a night of drunken revelry. Luckily, a viewer of The World’s End will not have to endure the hangover and self-loathing that can accompany such a night out.
At its core, though, The World’s End is a film about the poignancy of becoming an adult and the appeal of being a kid just one more time, the painful knowledge that your once best friends have left you behind, moving on to greener, more stable pastures. After all, the first half of the film’s running time is about this group of five men, reunited by the one member of their group who refuses to grow up, and the melancholic ache of watching that former friend work so hard to appear happy because in reality, he’s horribly miserable. It’s also about, much as Shaun of the Dead was, how bland and unappealing complacency and the daily grind of a responsibility-driven life can be.
Of course, none of this would work without an expert cast, and assembling the perfect group of players has always been a strength of the “Cornetto Trilogy.” Pegg has the most delicate balancing act to maintain. Gary King must be obnoxious and unlikable, but also strangely appealing and sympathetic. We need to understand the sway he still has over his friends, and we need to see the misery lurking beneath his falsely chipper exterior. Pegg plays Gary as an id-driven, self-absorbed creep, but one who constantly recognizes the pathetic nature of his existence. He’s ego masking self-loathing. Frost’s Andy, also has to make his transformation from a man who hates everything about Gary King to a guy who will risk his life to save him convincing, and he does so by playing Andy as a man whose hatred is driven by disappointment in a friend he once loved so much. Emotional betrayal is always at the heart of Andy’s disdain, and that makes Andy’s actions later in the film more believable, because there’s always love beneath the hatred. Frost and Pegg have worked together for so long now, their interactions have something akin to nostalgia for the familiar viewer, and the film capitalizes on that by keeping them together for much of the film’s second half. The repairing of that fractured friendship becomes as much of a drive as the sci-fi threat raining down around them. Freeman (who appeared in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), Marsan, and Considine (who appeared in Hot Fuzz) also make for appealing, witty leads, especially Considine who is given a romantic subplot and his own reasons for resenting Gary King. The quintet of actors have a wonderfully natural onscreen chemistry that makes their roles as former best friends believable.
It’s true that the film’s special-effects laden ending may be a bit too much crazy for the film to handle, but it’s still able to maintain its biting, absurdist humor. Every time I thought I was about to roll my eyes at the latest plot twist, my hysterical laughter stopped me. The World’s End is the funniest film of the summer (and probably one of the funniest films you’ll see all year), and it has the necessary emotional center to give the laughs an extra ring of truth. I hope the “Cornetto Trilogy” eventually becomes the “Cornetto Quartet”, “Quintet,” and so on, because I refuse to believe, despite the film’s rather final sounding title, that we’ve really reached the end.
So, what did you think, guys? Were you a fan of the film? Did you think it was terribly overrated? Let us know in the comments!