It’s the five – not four – horsemen of the apocalypse in The World’s End, and the apocalypse itself is adulthood.
That’s how the filmmaking team of writer-star Simon Pegg and writer-director Edgar Wright tends to portray growing up. In Shaun of the Dead, their affectionate zombie spoof, it took a plague of the undead for the hero to embrace responsibility. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright’s Pegg-free film and possibly his best, is an exhilarating, celebratory burst of adolescence. Even Hot Fuzz, the pair’s spoof of bombastic Hollywood cop flicks, indulges in the inherent juvenilia of such pictures. These movies laugh, bleed and explode in the face of maturity, even as they begrudgingly recognize the virtue of it.
Maturity has been embraced by four of the five main characters in The World’s End. Friends as teenagers, Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) have gone their separate ways and established relatively stable, if uneventful, lives. Not so for the former leader of their gang, Gary (Pegg), who still sports his signature black trench coat and drives around in the same sad sedan. It’s been completely refurbished, at great cost, because nothing is more important to Gary than reliving the greatest years of his life.
To that end, Gary convinces the others to return to their hometown and meet a challenge they had failed at as kids: have a pint in each of the town’s 12 pubs all in one night. I won’t give away what happens, except to mention that the genre being tweaked by Pegg and Wright this time around includes The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Pegg and Wright’s movies laugh, bleed and explode in the face of maturity, even as they begrudgingly recognize the virtue of it.
You could argue that the strongest moments in The World’s End are those that come before its sudden, science-fiction twist. Wright’s default speed is spastic – quick edits, fast pans – and he’s a master of that sort of style, but the unexpected pleasure of the movie’s opening third is the underplayed comedy that’s largely wrung from inaction. Each of the men greets Gary’s proposal with a slight variation on the same exasperated sigh. Later, there’s a dryly funny shot of these forcibly reunited friends sitting around a table unsure of what to talk about.
It helps that Marsan, Considine and Freeman are all deft performers – real actors capable of a comic touch. The surprise, though, is that Frost is the best of the lot. A Pegg-Wright regular with impeccable comic timing, Frost takes his usual sidekick role to another level, creating what becomes the movie’s most crucial character. Andy was once Gary’s boozing wingman, but he’s grown up and figured out adulthood – for the most part. Though he’s achieved sobriety and white-collar success, we also learn that his marriage is in trouble. And so even in the funniest scenes, Andy drags a sense of sadness along with him.
In case I’ve made The World’s End sound touchy-feely, I should also point out that a romantic gesture made by Andy during one sequence involves impaling an adversary’s stomach with his fist. Other highlights in this vein include an early bathroom brawl, in which Wright’s frenetic technique manages to switch from each of our heroes’ points of view with impressively few edits. For a comedy, The World’s End has some of the year’s best action sequences.
The film also ends on a nice bit of irony. All along, Gary has been a comically inept figure, while the long-suffering, well-meaning Andy has earned most of our sympathy. Yet when the two find themselves in a climactic showdown with diabolical forces, what ultimately saves the day? Gary’s stupidity. In that spirit, here’s hoping these Pegg-Wright movies never fully grow up.