The Cornetto Trilogy comes to a superb conclusion with THE WORLD’S END. Director Edgar Wright again teams with the regular cast of co-writer Simon Pegg as the anti-hero, and Nick Frost as the humorless corporate lawyer, along with newcomers Eddie Marsan as the grinning bunny rabbit of a car salesman, Paddy Considine as the enterperneur who’s cashed out, and Martin Freeman as the befuddled real estate flunky, in a story that is at once a sly commentary on relationships, a bittersweet contemplation on the fleeting nature of youth, and a devastating satire on cultural imperialism.
Pegg is Gary King, a man approaching middle age who has not gotten over being an adolescent. More to the point, he’s not gotten over being the undisputed coolest guy at his high school in the village of Newton Haven, as well as undisputed leader of a willing group of acolytes. Even more to the point he’s never gotten over the best night of his life, June 22, 1992, when he and those acolytes attempted the Golden Mile, a pub crawl of the village’s 12 pubs that ended before they could finish that last pint at the last pub, the eponymous World’s End. Twenty years later, and in an uncertain moment of clarity, Gary decides to get the old gang back together for another try. Never mind that they have all, even Gary, moved on and out of Newton Haven without a backward glance. Never mind that he hasn’t seen them in 10 years or more. Never mind that they are not eager to see him again. Gary, while cool, was also trouble and so when he shows up as a black-trenchcoated blast from their carefree pasts, the initial reaction is cooler than Gary was, but not in the same way. Trickery, guilt, pleading, and pestering gets Gary his way, and as they hit that first pub, The First Post, the way they have grown apart become even more apparent. As they hit subsequent pubs, and pints, except for Andy who has been sober since a mysterious accident with Gary 16 years before, the warm glow of nostalgia begins to kick in. When Sam (Rosamund Pike) drops in, old tensions and jealousies kick in even harder.
And then things get weird. Very weird. The twist plays on the strange familiarity of a hometown not seen in decades, but the story itself finds the old friends in a life-and-death situation that forces them, against their will, mostly, to complete the Golden Mile or face consequences too bizarre, and too terrible, to contemplate.
Fans of the previous two films, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ will find a wealth of call-outs to those films that are more than mere homages. This intricately and carefully crafted film is far too sleek to bog down in any of its wealth of delicious details that shrewdly planted throughout, such as the pub’s names being anything but random. The dialogue is rapid fire and rapier sharp, and though the conversations themselves range from the introspective to the giddily ridiculous, with the actors at all times being dead serious, playing it straight even when the subject turns to the subtleties and pitfalls of English grammar and usage. It’s a combination that provides piquant juxtapositions and peculiar correspondences as the mood remains wildly funny but the tone shifts easily from tragedy to comedy and then back again. Old wounds, fresh deceptions, hollow swagger, and some of the best bar fights ever staged fuel the action with characters as vividly drawn as they are unpredictable. Wright effortlessly invokes the rich vocabulary of cinema using a refined sophistication coupled with an unfettered sense of the absurd such that he can render a cliché not just a punch line, but the whole point, and then proceed to ramp it up into something that is not only new, but also devilishly smart and fiendishly funny.
It’s also bracingly original. Each of the characters get their moments to not just make us choke with laughter, but also to give serious dramatic turns. With Marsan we expect to find the complicated emotions of not being recognized by the bully who ruined his childhood. Rather it’s Pegg who astonishes as Gary’s night of drunken debauchery fizzles and he’s forced to confront the mess he’s made of his life, Pegg’s performances delicately but deliberately touches a raw nerve just before Gary once again does something stupid and Pegg doesn’t miss a beat transitioning back to the comedy that, in this case, is carefully rooted in Gary’s essential tragedy.
By the end, redemption is an odd rite of passage in which Gary’s particular skill set, such as it is, proves to be the very thing that saves the day, while also pretty much ruining everything else. There is in THE WORLD’S END not a moment of screen time that is not a revelation, a shock, a surprise, and/or a sublime, irreverent, and devastatingly insightful expression of the human condition. It’s also so jam-packed with nuances, jokes, and other assorted hidden gems that is will take at least two viewings to get them all. Never mind that it gives you the joy of reliving the magic of a film made with such obvious love by and for cinephiles.