Laurie Sparham, Focus Features
You like wacky, hyperreferential movies that tap the fan boy brainstem? Sure you do. So do we — which is why we had a pair of critics compare notes on what is already being hailed as one of the year’s funniest films. Pour an imperial pint of your favorite beverage and join us on a spoiler-laden journey through the workings of The World’s End.
Joel Arnold: I went into The World’s End, the last of this summer’s spate of apocalypse comedies, with a spring in my step and “The Boys Are Back in Town” playing in my head. I couldn’t help it. Those wild-eyed Brits responsible for the quick-witted zomcom Shaun of the Dead and the thrilling sendup of the big-budget police actioner Hot Fuzz have been off doing all sorts of interesting things. Director Edgar Wright adapted Scott Pilgrim, co-writer and star Simon Pegg appeared in Star Trek and costar Nick Frost turned in memorable roles in Paul and Attack the Block.
But they’re together again for the final entry to their Cornetto trilogy, so named for the UK ice cream brand that’s popped up in the previous two films. Like them, The World’s End explores notions of friendship and growing up while playfully mucking about with genre. This time, it’s about friends reliving their glory days (or days best forgotten) while attempting to finally finish the epic bar crawl they almost made it through 20 years earlier in their suburban hometown.
Ian, we’ve both seen Shaun, Fuzz and the gang’s earlier TV series Spaced, and to me something feels distinctly off about this collaboration — and it’s not just the suspicious residents of Newton Haven. Did this feel like a Wright-Pegg movie worthy of its predecessors?
Ian Buckwalter: I can identify with that “off” feeling you describe, but for me, it’s largely a function of the thing that I think makes these collaborations so strong: this team’s determination not to live in the past. That’s a little ironic, given that that’s what this film is all about, our inability to leave the past behind, exemplified by Pegg’s Gary, who is still wearing the same Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, the same black duster, driving the same car and listening to the same mixtapes that he was 20 years ago.
I can recall a similar feeling watching Hot Fuzz the first time, that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, because it wasn’t the same as Shaun, despite the cleverly recycled jokes, the familiar format, the shared themes. But it refused to give us the same thing as Shaun did, and I had to fight my own urge to be Gary and want more of the same. In the end, I accepted Fuzz as something entirely of its own and went with it, and did the same with The World’s End. What didn’t work for you?
Arnold: I’m glad you’re no Gary (though in that comparison things don’t bode well for me) because the guy is not exactly well, and therein lies the challenge I had of connecting to the story through this narcissistic, superficial, yet extremely broken protagonist. Despite his vintage look, Gary King has been less frozen in time for two decades than he has been in a steady decay since the day he left high school. There are indications he’s had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and at one time or another he’s lost touch or fallen out with his four best friends from that time, who have all gone on to successful careers. There’s the timid and once-upon-a-time bullied Peter (Eddie Marsan); Steven (Paddy Considine), who back in the day was always a step behind Gary in everything cool including chatting up girls; the cheerful Oliver (Martin Freeman); and Andy (Nick Frost), the man who was once Gary’s best friend. When Gary decides to reunite them, he resembles a tragic version of a Wes Anderson protagonist — inspired by organizing the people around him — only Gary’s selfishness has long since driven his community of followers away.
Once Gary tracks them down and applies just the right combination of lies and enthusiasm — Pegg excels at making Gary’s manic energy infectious — he manages to persuade the guys to return home and complete the Golden Mile. Pegg sells the pitch with a pizazz that made me want to attempt the 12-pub marathon, but once the crawl actually begins, it’s clear the guys are there to enable Gary’s drinking. They’ve all learned to see through Gary’s tricks for the most part, and their strained relationship with him becomes one of reluctant indulgence and increased frustration. With only one guy having a good time and the rest of the characters wondering, “Why are we here?” it was only too easy for me to wonder the same. That is, until there were robots. Then things perked right up.
Buckwalter: Gary is a difficult character to hang the movie’s sympathies on, for sure. He’s the sum total of all the loser-ish tendencies of the characters Pegg has played in his and Wright’s collaborations, amped up to 11 and on cocaine. That last part, literally. But in that respect, I found his story to be a fitting conclusion to the Cornetto series, a final challenge to make us sympathize with a character who exhibits many of the same qualities of arrested development, fear of success and single-minded obsessions that they’ve been wrestling with ever since their first collaboration on Spaced. Only now instead of a directionless romantic (Spaced‘s Tim), a sad-sack lovable loser (Shaun), or a manically overambitious control freak (Nicholas from Hot Fuzz), all the yins of redeemability are left off, leaving us with a mess of execrable yangs. That makes him difficult to root for, but I’d argue that it also allows for a more complete journey of redemption than they’ve ever had in any of the other stories. Also, it’s just a joy to watch Pegg really sink his teeth into playing such a horrible person. He’s obviously having a blast.
Once the whole Invasion of the Stepford Wife Snatchers machinations of the sci-fi plot intrude on the proceedings, things definitely pick up forward momentum, but honestly, I was still really enjoying watching the sad clown drama of Gary and this awkward reunion up to that point, in the same way I enjoyed the rom-com embedded amid the zombies of Shaun or the odd couple interactions of Pegg and Frost in Fuzz before things went all Wicker Man.
Apart from the stumbling block of finding it difficult to be very pro- about the protagonist here, did they at least have you sold on the style, the jokes, and the command of the material? Because I felt that as a director, Wright just continues to demonstrate an almost savantlike understanding of the nuts and bolts of genre cinema, and how to tweak just about anything familiar just enough to make it absolutely his own. He’s like Tarantino with a much lighter touch for me in that way.
Arnold: Wright is also for me a director who’s incredibly satisfying to watch work. On a macro level he makes smart, unexpected choices about how to use genre that make you feel smart seeing them play out, and on a moment-to-moment basis his and Pegg’s writing tosses so many balls in the air with fast-paced, layered jokes that it demands a nuanced execution, and Wright nearly always nails it. I say nearly grudgingly because the movie breathes Wright’s style and shines in so many successful bits: Gary striking out so completely with Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), the debate as to what to call these people-looking automatons, and really any moment Gary puts himself in harm’s way just to get at a drink are worthy of Wright’s talents, as is the guys’ charming choice to keep drinking so as not to arouse suspicion that they know something is wrong with their town. That of course leaves them completely plastered when it comes time to do some fighting.
But many of the moving parts of this go-around take some visible grinding to get themselves into place. It takes the threat posed by these mysterious outsiders — alternately pushily pleasant and ready to reduce you to compost — to break down the barriers and get Gary and Andy and the rest to reconcile, but the engaging beats of the emotional through-line are often undercut by the sci-fi plot that seems to work at cross-purposes, confusing the theme for far too long rather than reinforcing it.
The heroes of Shaun of the Dead faced a similar dilemma with violent hordes of nonhuman things, and they solved their problem using similar skill sets — those of normal people — that led them to take down zombies with pool cues and vinyl records. It beggars belief that Freeman’s real estate agent and Frost’s corporate lawyer have had hand-to-hand combat training, but because the plot requires it, nearly everyone becomes a superhero in the stylishly choreographed but overproduced fight scenes. They may as well be smashed versions of Jason Bourne.
There’s also the movie’s painful tendency to slather on exposition too often, resetting the board each time and telling the heroes what’s happening rather than letting them discover it. When the reason the robots are part of this story is fully explained, it’s a heavy-handed reveal that feels more like a slight Doctor Who episode, clunky in setup and underdeveloped in metaphor. What did I miss? What demands the marriage of the Drinkers and Aliens?
Buckwalter: I think many of the things bothering you were, for me, simply Wright’s signature elements taken to their logical, if slightly over-the-top ends. The inexplicable fighting skills are sort of a Wright hallmark. Think of Shaun’s martial arts kip-up maneuver to get off the ground, or the skill at riflery that Shaun and Ed supposedly have from playing video games, despite the fact that operating a controller and firing a rifle are actually very different skill sets. Or, in Hot Fuzz, Danny’s sudden transformation into an excellent cop, based mainly on years of watching action movies and a few days of study at Nicholas’ side. And it was the entire central conceit of Scott Pilgrim: a world in which normal folks having video game/superhero fighting skills was de rigueur.
Those fighting skills then allow Wright to show off his impressive chops as an action director. For a guy known for the quick cut — the way he shoots and edits the filling of those first five pint glasses is a fantastic visual joke told entirely through nimble editing — his fight sequences are admirably fluid. The choreography is pleasurably dizzying, and he holds shots unusually long, moving with the action in ways that are anathema to most modern action directors. The fact that this is now the second movie in which he’s used a former Bond makes me wonder if he’s making a subtle bid to take over for Sam Mendes on that series. He’d have my vote.
Ok, yes, the big expository scene plunked down in the middle to explain things feels a little clunky. But is it really that different from the newscast scene early in Shaun, or Jim Broadbent’s Inspector Butterman explaining the aims of the NWA to Nicholas in Fuzz? In many ways it’s just a part of Wright and Pegg’s attachment to old-timey B-movie convention.
Switching gears for a moment, what did you think of Wright’s use of music in the film? Because I’d like to make an argument for him being maybe the best integrator of pop music into film today — but then again, as I’m the same age as Wright, the late-‘80s/early ‘90s sonic backdrop of this film could have just been tailored for me.
Arnold: Like one of the near-human facsimiles rationally arguing as to why my body should be snatched, you’re crazy, but you make a good case. Wright’s musical choices made me want to join in on Gary’s one-man party, at least for a while. I was onboard the minute Primal Scream’s “Loaded” opened the film and proclaimed Gary’s one simple desire to drink and have a good time. That or “I’m Free” might as well be his anthem, and those upbeat songs made me feel a nostalgia for that sweet early ‘90s sound I never thought would be possible (mostly because I was still tuned in to Sesame Street around that time). Other tracks support the heavier emotions running through the film, dialing into Steven’s long-unspoken crush on Sam’s and Gary’s deeply buried pain. What tracks stuck out to you as particularly effective?
Buckwalter: The moment that I think will be an enduring classic in this movie is the use of Suede’s “So Young” as the lads are starting the pub crawl. The hilarity of the mismatch between the lyrics and the fact that these guys look very much not so young — especially when they pass the gang of hoodied teens — is just classic. The original video for the song is a tragically dated piece of early-‘90s video-making, and I think this sequence will forever replace that clip as my association to the track. (Also worth noting here: The opening expository montage covering their original attempt to complete the Golden Mile is pretty amazingly evocative of that time period as well, complete with the Super 8 footage and crazy title cards, as if Wright was consciously trying to re-create the opening credits of the old Ben Stiller Show.)
Apart from that, there’s also The Doors‘ “Alabama Song”; the “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar” lyrics should be far too on the nose, but because of its placement at a time when the gang is trying to maintain a low profile, the “oh, don’t ask why” becomes the more relevant lyric, and again heightens the hilarity of what would otherwise just be a scene of them walking from one place to another. I also loved the decision to have the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends” playing barely audibly when they arrive at the ninth bar, which was both the last bar that they made it to when they were teenagers and where things really take a turn in the present-day story. It’s much more subtle but ranks up there with the use of Queen‘s “Don’t Stop Me Now” in the pub beat-down in Shaun.
Big-picture time: It sounds like you’re going to rank this at the bottom of the pile for Wright’s work. I’m not sure where it falls for me yet. But I’d just like to take a moment to appreciate the fact that we’re in a cultural spot where a director like Wright, who is really sort of unique in the current cinema landscape, can become a success — even after the relative commercial failure of Scott Pilgrim. Whether you think this movie fails or not, it’s sort of great that we’re at a place where Wright can get $20 million to go play with ideas like this, no?
Arnold: Absolutely. I may be a trifle hard on this film and see more in its potential, but being the least liked Edgar Wright film is still for me a compliment, and it’s worth celebrating that a movie with this idiosyncratic a voice can exist at all in today’s landscape. Wright has carved out a niche in which he’s able to keep pursuing what he finds interesting in part because of how well he uses his budget — I was sure this film had to cost more than it did, and the same goes for the even lesser budgets of his previous two efforts. Shaun of the Dead also came at a time when geek culture was beginning to go mainstream, and the viewers who would appreciate Wright’s pop culture-saturated yet emotionally earnest brand of filmmaking were able to find and support his work. That’s the way I found it, and I’m still sold on seeing anything he makes.
Buckwalter: Yes, it’s been interesting to watch the career trajectory of Wright and Pegg, as guys who come at filmmaking very much from the perspective of being fans themselves. With Spaced, that translated into very heavy and specific pop culture references, and with the Cornetto trilogy it has blossomed into a much broader tribute to and gentle spoofing of genre tropes. As the cache of geek culture has risen, so has their own. I’m sure Pegg dreamed as a child of one day being in a Doctor Who episode or a Star Trek movie, and now he’s done those things. Similarly, all of these Cornetto films can be read as Wright and Pegg creating exactly the sort of films that the 12-year-old versions of themselves probably always dreamed of being a part of. That’s really what appeals to me so much about all their work: That sense of joy and practically disbelief that they actually get to do this for a living is right up there on-screen.
But the constant danger of being a fan, and going back to a well that was mostly filled in childhood, is that you get stuck appreciating only what was important to you then. They’ve dealt with the living in the past thing before, but never so directly as they do here, and in that way, it becomes sort of a subtle referendum on fan culture and the dangers of never moving forward. They’ve said they’ll continue to work together, but that their future work will be very different from the shared themes of these films. Which for me is great news, because as much as I love all of these films, I wouldn’t want them to become real life Garys. They’ll continue to know how to party, to press on to the next pub, but it won’t be one of the same ones they visited 20 years ago.