This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a bender.
“The World’s End” is the final installment in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy that includes “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” It’s easily the most British of the three, invoking “Doctor Who” and Douglas Adams into their archetypal genre love letter. In many ways, Edgar Wright is the British Joss Whedon. Along with Pegg and co-star/collaborator Nick Frost, they have an epic cult following amongst the Comic-Con set. Their fans love to compete in Easter Egg hunts, brag about being the first to discover “Spaced” (the TV show that began it all) and work their dialog into their everyday conversation (“Skip to the end”). I’m sure they have casual fans as well, but I can’t speak from personal experience.
Their final act continues the Cornetto tradition of combining emotional truth with a fantastical premise. In this case, it begins with a morality tale about the dangers of letting nostalgia stand in the way of maturity. Gary King (Simon Pegg) hasn’t changed one bit since his “sixth form” graduation (that’s British for “high school”) back in nineteen hundred and ninety. He still sports the same dyed black hair, matching trench coat and Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He drives the same gremlin of a car and blasts the same Soup Dragons-laden mix from the “tape deck” (that’s old person for “mp3 player”). But despite his youthful exuberance, he harbors one regret: never finishing The Golden Mile – the 12-pub crawl down the main drag of his pocket-sized hometown of Newton Haven.
After regaling his AA meeting with his “best night of my life” tale, he has a breakthrough. He decides that the only way to get back on track is to round up his old mates and recreate that fateful night. Only this time, he will finally make it to the 12th pub: The World’s End.
What Gary doesn’t count on is that the other four members of his gang would grow up in the intervening twenty-odd years. With careers and, in some cases, families, they have put their boozing ways behind them and Gary even further behind. But Gary’s single-minded alcoholic wiles kick in and he manages to round up the whole reluctant lot, including his now teetotaler estranged best friend, Andy (Nick Frost).
If this sounds like a lot of set up, you’re not wrong. It does take a while for the film to come to the point. But that may be because, thanks to the trailer, I knew there was a point to come to. Just as these former mates have just about had it with each other, they are derailed by the discovery that robots have replaced many of their hometown residents. They don’t know what the robots want beyond bathroom brawls, so Gary decides that the best course of action is just to keep calm and carry on until they come up with a better plan. Amazingly, his cohorts agree to this plan, which is either the film’s first plot hole or an extreme example of British politeness.
It’s at this point that the Wrightness kicks into high gear, with the resolution of all the carefully laid foreshadowing, rhythmic editing to a killer soundtrack and plenty of video-game style fight choreography. This is the point at which Cornetto fans begin to soil their knickers. It wasn’t until I meditated on it later that I noticed some cracks in the foundation.
At times, Gary’s antics flirt with Vince Vaughn-level insufferableness. Meanwhile, the members of the posse who aren’t Frost or Pegg all blend together into one bland British man. I know that Martin Freeman is the one with the Bluetooth grafted to his head who used acronyms in place of actual swearing. And that Paddy Considine is the one who fancies the token lady love/female voice of admonishment (Rosamund Pike). And that Eddie Marsan (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) is another guy who is there to tell Gary he’s a prick. But none of these characters are necessary in the grand scheme of things. As per usual, it’s all about the relationship between Pegg and Frost. A pub crawl with only two might look a lot less like a good time and a lot more like alcoholism, but they could have advanced the plot more smoothly without all the extra weight.
Another thing that might hurt its stateside box office performance is it’s aforementioned acute Britishness. The concept of binge drinking doesn’t really exist in the U.K. and all the jokes about pubs being “Starbucked” might not resonate as much with Yanks. It also enters “Hitchhiker’s Guide” territory when it posits that humanity exists, against the odds, through a miraculous combination of hubris and dumb luck.
But for Anglophiles and Cornetto-heads, there is plenty to love from the first sip to “The bitter end… or the lager end.” “The World’s End” is an invitation to the Wright/Pegg/Frost Ewok after-party complete with the smiling ghost of Jedi Douglas Adams. I wouldn’t miss that for the world. Jub jub.