'The World's End': A sci-fi comedy masterpiece
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It will no doubt strike many as odd that what I claim as the year's most virtuosic and consistently entertaining movie comedy also happens to be an action-packed tribute to a very British strain of anachronistic science fiction. It may seem odder too that I claim this self-same movie boasts the most delightfully literary script of any that's unspooled across a cinema screen this year. But the exquisite execution of such unusual entertainment feats happens to be the specialty of director and writer Edgar Wright, who, here reunited with his frequent leading man and co-writer Simon Pegg, presents the most delightfully and sensibly eccentric mainstream picture I've seen in some time, "The World's End."
If you've heard that this movie represents the conclusion of a trilogy, but you haven't seen "Shaun of the Dead" and/or "Hot Fuzz, " you needn't worry whether you'll get this, at least within the whole context of having missed out by not having seen the prior installments. On the other hand, if you have seen "Shaun of the Dead" and/or "Hot Fuzz," then you're familiar enough with the freewheeling yet precise Wright/Pegg (and sometimes Frost -- costar Nick Frost, the Hardy to Pegg's Laurel, the Costello to his Abbott, was co-writer with Pegg on "Paul," directed by Greg Mottola) sensibility to have an idea of what you're getting into here.
The premise is simplicity itself, and one that seemingly countless "the way we were" movies have hinged on. Pegg's character, Gary King (and does this ranting Peter Pan egomaniac like to harp on that name), recalls a night of post-teen "glory" with his four best mates during which they almost completed a legendary hometown pub crawl. This crawl was to have taken in 12 watering holes, ending with the title pub, The World's End. And so, some 20 years later, he makes to "get the band back together." His old mates, unlike still hard-partying Gary, are rather settled and sedate and domesticated and largely less than thrilled to be getting the call from the irresponsible one-time ringleader. Particularly not keen is Andy (Frost), who's been dry for 16 or so years after what Gary and mates only allude to as "the accident." Nonetheless, Gary's wheedling works ("there's just no arguing with him" is an observation that becomes a leitmotif) and soon Andy and Peter, Steven and Oliver (Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman, all distinctive, all excellent) are back on their old stomping grounds.
It doesn't take them long to notice that things done changed: The drinking establishments they so fondly recall all have a rubber-stamped, corporately genericized feel to them, as if they'd been Starbucked, so to speak. But soon after Peter's attractive sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) shows up to rekindle a mostly imaginary romantic rivalry between Gary and Steven, the boys, a little buzzed, begin to notice that something more is awry in their hometown. A bathroom brawl in which Gary inadvertently decapitates (yes, decapitates) a hoodie-wearing teen and discovers something even more unexpected in the aftermath, is, as you might imagine, a real script-flipper. And also not. One of the things that make Wright one of the more distinctive mainstream directors working today is his assured grasp of the poptastic hybrids he concocts. "The World's End" is, in terms of tone, kind of what might have happened if "The Day of the Triffids" had been made by Ealing Studios. The comedy and the action and the suspense and the absurdism, while creating some incredibly wild and unpredictable juxtapositions, all seem to mesh gears in an incredibly organic way. It certainly helps that Pegg and Frost and the rest of the crew are practically without peer in comic timing, and that the jokes are so brilliant and brilliantly layered that there are passages here that feel like a tap of pure comic brilliance has been unstopped and left running. And while the verbal fireworks are going off Wright is laying the groundwork for the payoffs to a baker's dozen of visual gags.
And, yes, the whole thing is very British, including a nostalgic just-pre-Britpop song soundtrack that in itself is unerringly funny if you can pick up on the jokes it's making. The cultural specificity of Wright's stuff, whether within this casual trilogy or in the graphic-novel derived "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (Wright's sole Pegg-and-Frost-less feature), is sometimes cited as a sticking point by some critics. It's a thing, all right, but I for one enjoy the challenge it sometimes represents because the payoff in pleasure is pretty substantial. Not to be snobby, but if you can't get a kick out of the bit in this movie where the characters explain the origins of their private exit catchphrase "Let's Boo-Boo," then maybe we oughtn't hang out.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.