This Is How the World Ends, With a Laugh
The World’s End is about five pals on a reunion booze-up that goes seriously haywire. The film itself is a reunion that’s triumphant. The uproarious English comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite with Edgar Wright (who directed the team’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz ) for a third go-round. As before, the collaboration is a wild mix of dark hilarity and daredevil thrills, and a bull’s-eye on every level. It’s a cockeyed comedy of character that puts recognizable, relatable personalities in extraordinary situations. It’s outrageous satire, bruisingly funny slapstick and — while never too snooty to stoop for lowdown laughs — deliciously smart besides.
Pegg plays Gary, a haggard man-child who has lived in a haze of booze since finishing high school. Gary is all whirligig enthusiasm without direction, a Tasmanian devil in a tattered ‘80s rock T-shirt. His life motto comes from the Scottish band the Soup Dragons, who sang, “I’m free to do what I want any old time.” A fine youth anthem. For a man staring at 40, pathetic.
What Gary wants to be is drunk. Living it up, he’d call it. Because his life-of-the-party act doesn’t work without an audience, he cajoles, guilt-trips and arm-twists his school drinking buddies to return to their old hometown. Gary’s goal is to re-create a notorious pub crawl they failed to complete as kids. Five friends, 12 pubs, 12 pints and great memories if they can recall them the morning after.
The first few rounds give us wry anti-nostalgia (the pubs have been made over into sterile Starbucks facsimiles of their old selves) and character set-up (it seems as if Gary’s old mates, now adult and blandly successful, underwent the same sort of streamlining). Frost’s Andy has gone teetotal. The guys played by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan aren’t interchangeable. Each has distinct intentions and motivations, and these are actors who can give you a character’s life story in an exasperated line reading or a yearning look. They’ve just settled in for the ride to beige, tepid Stepford middle age. Freeman’s real-estate agent lives with a Bluetooth earpiece permanently in place, as if he’s already half android. Obnoxious and deluded as Gary is, no one would mistake him for the walking undead.
Once the story mechanism is ticking, Gary has an odd encounter in one of the pubs, and in an instant things go blooey. Suddenly he’s gone from living in the past to living in a very twisted future. The film makes a Twilight Zone leap into the realm of science fiction, triggering a dizzying array of special effects, fight sequences, dance scenes, nitwit debates on human nature and near-lethal puns. In all summer action films there is the obligatory scene where the characters outrun an orange fireball. Wright gives the damndest fireball-outrunning scene in cinematic history.
As in the earlier Pegg/Frost/Wright efforts, which sent up zombie flicks and cop actioners, the love of movies runs pretty deep in this film, but it’s never allowed to push confident, logical storytelling aside.
Every situation and character makes sense within the bounds of the film’s off-kilter world. No weirdness ever intrudes just to keep the chuckles going. The script is as patiently constructed as one of those million-piece domino drops that ends with a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa. The names of the pubs map out the plot of the film. Time-delay gags explode 20 scenes later. Even the overkill bar brawls work on multiple levels, with Gary fending off attacks without sloshing his lager. The World’s End is such a blissful crackbrained extravaganza you hope the end never arrives.