As the completion of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s thus-far endlessly watchable Cornetto Trilogy, “The World’s End” is probably the funniest movie I’ve ever felt really disappointed by. Like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” before it, their collaboration once again produces some of the most genuine, earned, character-driven laughs in any modern comedy. And in many ways it evidences the trio’s individual and collective growth as performers and creators, employing what has become to their fans familiar techniques to communicate increasingly sophisticated ideas. But as a film whose central theme emphasizes the dangers of living in the past, Wright, Pegg and Frost become fatally distracted by nostalgia, eventually paying too much homage to previous classics—especially their own—to create another film that deserves to stand alongside them.
Pegg plays Gary King, the last holdout in a group of friends who thoroughly enjoyed the irresponsible glory of their high school years but in the 20 years since then, settled into more mature, mundane routines. With virtually nothing else to hold onto in his life but a mythical pub crawl that they failed to complete when they were 18, Gary rounds up Andrew (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) and convinces them to try again. But as they begin to walk “The Golden Mile,” Gary quickly discovers that it’s impossible to relive the past—first when he sees how much the pubs and his friends have changed, and then when the group slowly realizes that their sleepy hometown has apparently been taken over by a bizarrely polite alien menace.
Typically, there are more interlocking pieces in Edgar Wright’s scripts than a 1,000-piece puzzle—and they usually fit together with similar beauty: asides announce future plot points, pop culture references reveal character details and comic set pieces augment profound emotional truths. And there is much of that layering in “The World’s End,” starting with Gary’s account of their first attempt at the pub crawl, which more or less presages all that happens to him and his pals throughout the course of their second attempt. But the fulfillment of that narrative foreshadowing is messier and more convoluted than in any of their previous efforts, perhaps by design but seldom to greater effect. The idea alone of visiting twelve pubs makes it foundationally more complicated, for example, but rather than generating a sense of inescapable momentum or building tension, as they move from one to the next, the choice only exposes the characters and story to more unevenness.
Truthfully, the film’s big problem is the characterization of Gary, a guy whose halcyon self-glorification isn’t merely delusional, but relentless. His entire adulthood is defined, or maybe more accurately, constrained by the memories of his reckless youth. But despite his friends’ efforts to cajole or even confront him about letting go of the past, growing up and embracing a new phase of life, Gary persists in trying to recapture old glories, which eventually becomes as exasperating for the audience as it does his buddies. Oddly, the movie literally never portrays his perception of himself as flattering, but never fully (or appropriately) excoriates him for this obnoxious behavior, instead choosing to mostly let him off the hook—if not actually sort of validate his pathetic self-destructiveness.
If the alchemy of Pegg and Frost’s personalities generated so much of the emotional substance of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” their relationship is less central—and less impactful—to “The World’s End” than it maybe intends to be, primarily because the there aren’t two, but five characters who figure into the main thrust of the narrative. Considerable lip service is paid to the deep-rooted friendship between Gary and Andrew, but their current-day estrangement frequently takes a back seat to Gary’s issues with the other three characters, especially Steven, whose resurrected, imaginary rivalry for Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) much more painfully evidences the craterlike destructiveness of his behavior on all of their lives.
That the catalyst for Gary and Andrew’s rift is only mentioned where these other conflicts are shown on screen further undermines its importance. But the fatal blow to their eventual reconciliation is the fact that Gary never satisfactorily makes amends for his earlier negligence, even though Andrew forgives and forgets anyway.
Moreover, the film spends a significant chunk of time explaining a whole lot about the characters, their world, and the circumstances in which they find themselves by the end, without pairing it with enough action. In terms of fights and physical confrontations, mind you, there are several big, mostly-well-staged set pieces. But once the film takes a step back to examine the machinery of the friends’ relationships and the mythology of their alien opponents, its dramatic momentum grinds to a halt. Wright primarily introduces and resolves emotional conflicts through petulant conversations between Gary and, well, everyone, but even the film’s acknowledgement of the immaturity of those exchanges is writ large in a way that glorifies rather than critiques his myopic, self-destructive devotion to the past.
All of which is honestly why in a way I hope that I missed things in the film on a first viewing that, like the dense and layered structures of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” reveal themselves in subsequent ones. Especially since its climax seems more interested in paying homage to alien-invasion and apocalypse movies than in reinforcing or reconciling the dynamics between the characters, and an inexplicable coda seemingly undermines almost every single idea presented by one of the characters in the previous scene. But then again, maybe “The World’s End” is itself a self-fulfilling treatise on the dangers of trying to recapture the same experience over and over again: possibly feeling like they have evolved beyond the tomfoolery, brilliant though it is, of their earlier work, this enormously talented trio would perhaps rather look forward than back.
In delivering something that powerfully condemns that sort of celebratory self-reflection, it encourages its audience to do so as well, which given Wright’s brilliantly post-modern body of work, feels delightfully subversive. But if that’s the case, then viscerally, “The World’s End” is also a real bummer, because even though Wright, Pegg and Frost wrap up their trilogy with tons of incredibly funny material, they seem like the only ones who ultimately get the last laugh. [C+]