Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE WORLD'S END - The Once and Future King

For many, the exposure to British genre filmmaker Edgar Wright began with SHAUN OF THE DEAD or his follow-up (and spiritual sort-of-sequel) HOT FUZZ. However, before hitting film Wright was the show-runner on SPACED, a brilliant little sitcom featuring mainstays Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Meaning that THE WORLD'S END - the final film of the "Cornetto Trilogy" - constitutes the fifth (counting SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) brilliant geek love letter in a row that Wright's offered up.

It would almost seem unfair how consistently talented this guy is if his work wasn't also so deliciously enjoyable.

A running theme with Wright's films have been grown men struggling to act like grown-ups and the ever-present allure of nostalgia inherent in these characters. These two concepts coalesce into a single entity in THE WORLD'S END - Gary King, one-time leader of five friends in the town of Newton Haven who, more than 20 years later, is still stuck (in attitude and dress) in 1990. On an apparent mad whim, he calls his scattered one-time comrades together to try to recreate - and finish - the Golden Mile, a 12-venue pub crawl ending at the titular World's End on their old stomping grounds.

In a notable reversal, Simon Pegg plays the perpetually adolescent Gary while Nick Frost is the long-suffering straight man as Andy, King's alienated former best friend. The rest of the cast is stuffed with familiar character actors like Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine as well as the ever-great Martin Freeman and Rosamund Pike (in an engaging brother/sister act) and even a couple delightful cameo surprises. The cast settles into an easy chemistry that absolutely sells the relationship of decades-past friends/family trying to reconnect, and a lot of the heavy lifting there is the levity provided by the supporting players.

But the absolute stars of the show are - as usual - Pegg and Frost. It gives both actors a chance to really stretch, which is especially welcome from Frost, who ends up devastatingly effective as the clown's foil. Reversing the wheelhouses for both men (while still keeping Pegg in the role of the character most in need of change) also contributes to one of the ways in which this is the most mature and heady film from Wright to date. King's boyish bent and death grip on his glory days is played for laughs early on before the film peels back the layers to expose the real sadness of the character, Pegg's performance makes for some truly tragic pathos in what could have easily been a complete joke of a part, but even more impressively the filmmakers use him to say something. King is a stand-in for our own fond memories and nostalgic regrets, and how they can get the better of us. The movie flays this retro fetish with mechanical precision, ultimately claiming that such obsessive backward-looking has no place in a modern civilization, and finally asks if the price might be worth it. All while taking a surprisingly raw look at alcoholism.

For a director who has traded so much on geek culture and fond views of the past, this is a decidedly bold move for Wright, but his assured glee behind the camera is no less apparent, and neither is his insistence on providing the audience with a marvelous time. THE WORLD'S END might be a "thinking man's genre spoof" but it's also packed with some of the biggest laughs of the year, and indeed of the Cornetto Trilogy as a whole. From familiar gags (fences) to all new running jokes, the film maintains the tonal acrobatic act that has allowed Wright to shift from broad comedy to intimate drama at the drop of a hat, even while amping up both extremes considerably.

Wright also continues to improve as an action director, with sequences that tend to be inventive, exhilarating, and hilarious all at once (especially when Frost gets involved in a surprising way), but it's here where the film's biggest weakness rears its head. THE WORLD'S END never quite collapses on the weight of its own ideas (and manages to stick the landing pretty impressively), but between the way the "Five Musketeers" continue their pub crawl even after the truth about Newton Haven's sinister changes rears its head and the way certain action scenes get slightly repetitive, the pacing suffers. And while I enjoyed the status quo-changing epilogue, it will be a divisive sticking point for some viewers. Still, the film succeeds rather brilliantly, if not perfectly.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to label Edgar Wright as the UK's answer to geek icon Joss Whedon, but with this film Wright has shown himself to be every bit as talented in compelling ensembles, playful dialogue, and a hilarious awareness of genre underpinned by a real sense for dramatic storytelling. While THE WORLD'S END doesn't have the freshness of SHAUN OF THE DEAD or the mechanical perfection of HOT FUZZ, it truly feels like something that Wright and company have been building to all this time, and was absolutely worth the wait.

If this is the end, I couldn't be much happier.

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