Looking back on it, the real accomplishment of The World’s End, the new comedy from Edgar Wright, is not so much that it delivers laughs and thrills in high style and at a breakneck pace; that much is expected, after the adrenaline shots still zinging from his previous collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (and his own Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). What’s so lovely about their third cinematic effort is the quiet sense of melancholy at its center, its keen understanding of how some people just don’t grow up, and try as you might, you cannot force them to. It is a more mature piece of work, which seems a peculiar way to label a zippy comedy about drinking beer and outrunning the apocalypse.
The story opens with a fast-talking, cocky voice-over by Gary King (Pegg), recalling the night he and his best mates attempted the “Golden Mile,” a 12-pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven. It was, he assures us, “one of those nights that starts out like any other, but ends up one of the best nights of your life.” And though the quintet didn’t make it all the way to pub #12 (which shares the film’s name), Gary and his best pal Andrew (Frost) watched the sun come up and mused that “life would never get this good again. And y’know what? It never did.”
Those last three words are not the kind of thing you should probably say while sitting in a circle with a bunch of other addicts, but it speaks volumes about Gary that he does so, gleefully. He’s long since lost touch with his friends, who’ve all got real jobs and wear suits and even have families; he still sports the same wardrobe and drives the same car, which still blasts the same cassette tape (“Where did you find it?” “It was in the tape player!”). When he goes ‘round to them with the idea of taking another crack at the Golden Mile, he’s either ignorant or willfully oblivious to how badly none of them want to see him, let alone spend an evening getting hammered together.
But they all show up. Out of what, sympathy? Possibly. What The World’s End leaves for the audience to realize is that these men, though they’d never admit it, probably get some quiet satisfaction out of looking down their noses at the irresponsible, immature, untrustworthy Gary — and in observing his sadness. After all, what good are the accomplishments of leaving your hometown and becoming a success if you don’t have someone to compare yourself to, and feel better than?
Mind you, most (if not all) of this is subtext, and the depth with which this viewer is considering this stuff may have more to do with my own baggage — and with abiding by Mr. Wright’s plea to critics to help keep in the bag the specifics of what happens externally during their long night on the Golden Mile. (Suffice it to say that the film shares Hot Fuzz’s suspicion of cheerful little villages.)
And there’s plenty to enjoy on the surface. Pegg and Wright’s screenplay is filled with fast, crispy dialogue, and Wright’s work continues to stand out among laughers that are either visually dreary or utilitarian by shooting his comedies like action movies: zipping, bobbing, and weaving the camera and the narrative with entertaining grace. Pegg and Frost are one of the few honest-to-God comedy teams out there, and they frankly deserve the comparison with Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy — or at least Aykroyd and Belushi, the latter often recalled by Frost’s inspired turn, in which his character transforms from a teetotaler (who insists, in Gary’s words, on “drinking fucking rain”) to a Bluto-esque, animalistic, drunken buffoon.
The picture’s big effects beats play without overshadowing the comedy, and the gradual reveals of what exactly is going on are inspired. But like the summer’s other end-of-the-world buddy comedy, This Is the End, The World’s End works best as an examination of male camaraderie and the stickiness of long-term friendships. There’s something gentle and warm and unexpected about those elements, which are unexpected in a film that’s also such a roaring good time.
The World’s End is out today.