Review: Pegg and Frost score big laughs and raw emotions in Wright’s ‘World’s End’

Has it really been nine years since “Shaun Of The Dead”?

In some ways, it feels like that just happened, but when I consider how much ground Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have covered in those nine years, it’s sort of amazing. After all, when “Shaun” went into production, they were best known for a small cult English television show, and they were working completely independently, off the radar. That film’s release was a gamble for Focus/Rogue, at least in part because of just how very English the humor is, and it paid off for them. “Hot Fuzz” in 2007 was equally local in its sensibility, and it also showed that Pegg and Frost weren’t interested in just playing the same characters in different situations.

One of the hardest things about the position that Wright finds himself in now is the simple difference between surprising people with a small movie and then delivering on a decade’s worth of expectations, and I suspect that no matter what, “The World’s End” will frustrate some viewers. It’s not a movie designed to simply punch the pleasure button and comfort fans by repeating what they’ve done before. In fact, it may be a direct refutation of that idea, by design, and in some ways, it feels like it’s going to be a bitter pill for some people to swallow.

Both Shaun and Nick Angel, the characters that Pegg played in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” were presented in fairly sympathetic terms. Shaun’s a bit of a slacker, stuck in a low gear to the frustration of the people around him, but he’s a generally good guy, and when things go south, he rises to the occasion. Nick is more of a hard-ass on the outside, but there is a loneliness to him that finds some salve in the way Danny Butterman (Frost) takes to him, making him part of his town. In “The World’s End,” Pegg tests the limits of audience sympathies for the first time, playing Gary King, who may just be the world’s biggest tit.

In the film’s opening, we hear Gary recount the story of the greatest night of his life, which took place on the last day of high school when he set out with his friends to accomplish The Golden Mile, a 12-stop pub crawl through their local town, Newton Haven. They didn’t accomplish it back in 1990, and it’s gnawed at Gary ever since. That’s your first clue as to what this film’s really about. For most people, a night of drinking that took place 23 years ago would not be the metric by which the entire rest of their life was measured, but for Gary, that’s as good as it ever got.

Gary decides to try the Golden Mile again, but he can’t do it alone. He needs the original crew, and as he goes to try to get each of them aboard the plan, we quickly see how hesitant they are to have anything to do with him. Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Steven (Paddy Considine) are at least willing to talk to Gary, but all three of them seem amazed that Gary would have the nerve to go see Andrew (Nick Frost) face to face again. Andrew was always Gary’s right hand man, his best friend, but whatever happened between them two decades ago ended that completely, and Andrew wants nothing more to do with his former friend.

Andrew’s a teetotaler, for one thing, and we can deduce that his reasons have something to do with whatever happened with Gary King. There was also some money involved. When they do finally meet, Gary manipulates Andrew shamelessly, and by the time he’s done, Andrew wants to believe that time has made a better person of Gary King.

Sadly, that is not the case.

By the time the five men assemble in Newton Haven, one would assume we’re in for a film about the way old dynamics reassert themselves, a movie about how hard it is to go home, and there is some of that in the film. There’s a rhythm that the guys drop into almost immediately, and Gary is positively giddy to have everyone there. He is convinced that this night, completing this task, is some vital part of his own personal journey, and he attacks the evening, determined. Right away, though, the film starts to poke holes in the very idea of nostalgia. No one seems to remember Gary and his friends at all. The pubs they go into have all been homogenized to a disturbing degree so that it’s like twelve copies of the same building instead of these small personal expressions of someone’s identity. And worst of all, with Andrew not drinking, Gary feels like he’s got to pick up the slack, and he starts getting sloppy almost immediately.

Even if there was nothing else to the movie, that’s plenty of meat, and I think the script makes some wicked smart observations about Gary and the other guys. I’ve said repeatedly in print that my generation clings to nostalgia more than any other before them, but I’m starting to suspect that’s not the case. I know what when I was ten years old, my dad did not still have the toys of his childhood on display all over the house where I lived, but when I look at the pop culture of the ’70s, how much of it was about them trying to digest the ’50s? The same things was true in the ’80s, when we spent most of that decade grappling with the legacy of the ’60s, trying to sort out what all that turmoil meant. I feel like I’ve lived through the ’50s and the ’60s because of the sheer volume of nostalgia for those decades that I’ve absorbed as part of pop culture. I wasn’t alive when JFK died or when we walked on the moon, but I’ve lived through the impact of those events repeatedly thanks to filmmakers wrestling with their own experiences?

I think the reason Wright’s films about England travel is because he is so very specific about his experience. He thinks in terms of music and movies and culture, the shared things that you can refer to when you’re talking to someone else your own age, and I think it’s fitting that he refers to these three movies (“Shaun,” “Fuzz,” and this one) as “the Cornetto Trilogy.” I can go to Costco and buy a big box of Drumsticks, individually wrapped chocolate dipped ice cream cones, and they’re just lovely, but Cornetto is one of those English variations that carries a charge for people who grew up with them because of their familiarity. When I go to England and I go into a Tesco or  Sainsbury’s, I feel like I’m shopping in the “Mirror, Mirror” universe, like things are familiar but alien, totally recognizable even if I don’t know any of the names I’m reading. In person, Edgar is a guy who is always working, always creating, always looking ahead as he finishes each new project. He has the ability to develop something over years, executing it when he’s ready, when it feels right. “Ant-Man” probably could have happened earlier, but when it does happen, it’s going to be a film that has been fully digested by Wright, carefully considered and constructed. If he makes “The Night Stalker” with Johnny Depp, as was announced, I’ll bet it happened four or five or nine films down the road for Depp, once Wright’s built a crazy funhouse horror ride around a character that is built as a consideration of a larger theme. That’s what he does, and it’s not easy. It’s not something everyone could or even should do. I don’t want thirty people making films that are just like Edgar Wright films. I want him making them. He’s like a Sam Raimi, a Terry Gilliam, a Guillermo Del Toro, a Joe Dante, a John Carpenter, a voice who has a very specific plan of attack, a signature that makes their films feel like we’re checking in with a friend, a movie-mad lunatic who loves all the same things we do.

When this film takes a left turn from reality, it happens in such a matter-of-fact manner, in the middle of a larger scene, and it’s so strange that you almost have to assume it’s a dream or a fantasy or a joke of some sort. It’s not. There is a threat bubbling just below the surface of Newton Haven. And as soon as Gary recognizes that there is something seriously wrong in the town, he takes that as validation. That’s why no one remembers him. That’s why everything’s starting to look the same. That’s why he’s not having the fun he once did. Gary needs that hit, that rush that comes when you’re young and have the world ahead of you, and he suddenly realizes that he was meant to be here, meant to save Newton Haven and finish the Golden Mile in one fell swoop, and he throws himself into the evening completely. That last bit of reserve, that self-awareness that we can see churning in him before the threat to the town is revealed, is fortified and removed with liquid courage, growing from fight to fight. The other four guys are pulled along in his wake, and pretty soon, we’re watching a monster movie of sorts, playing riffs on “Body Snatchers” and “The Thing” and choreographed by Brad Allen, whose training with the Jackie Chan Stunt Team is crystal clear based on how funny and painful each fight turns out to be.

In an ensemble this big, it would be easy to focus on Pegg and Frost to the exclusion of everyone else, but that’s not really the case here. Eddie Marsan is both touching and funny as he grapples with the bizarre turns the evening takes, and he really plays the pain of adolescence in Peter. I like the puppy dog unrequited love that underlines everything Considine’s character Steven plays the moment Sam (Rosamund Pike) shows up again. These guys show you not only who they are now but who they were when they had that first night out on the Golden Mile with Gary. They are exceptionally good at allowing you to read everything that’s going on in the scene, not just the surface. I really like the performances, and I think Wright populates Newton Haven with some great smaller characters, giving room for lots of actors to score big in single moments or short scenes. Frost should be given special credit, though, because I think he’s really got a tough role here. Andrew is so bruised for the first part of the film that it’s hard to really get a read on him. When he does finally open up Popeye’s can of spinach (metaphorically speaking) and start to drink, Frost totally nails the change. It’s one great performance in the midst of a big fistful of great performances.

I think this is the most problematic third act of Wright’s filmography, There are elements of it that I love, that I think make some raw and painful points about Gary that basically calls out a certain sort of stuck-in-the-past world view as the hollow fantasy that it is. Pegg goes so emotionally naked so fast that it’s sort of jarring, but he sells it. His patter, his frantic sense of humor, his oblivious bull-headed insistence on fun, it all falls away and he shows us exactly what Gary is in his most private moments. It’s a dark turn, and it indicts one of Pegg’s characters for the first time instead of embracing and endorsing them. Shaun and Ed and their friendship is painted in such a funny, touching way, and the climax of “Hot Fuzz” is all about Nick and Danny trusting each other and kicking ass for what’s right. Here, the friendship between Gary and Andrew is so broken so far in the past that I don’t totally buy the reconciliation that we see. I get it on paper, and I like what it’s trying to do, but I think we’re missing some of the connective moments that make it live and breathe. And there is about ten minutes at the very end of the film that I really feel like I need to see again. It’s so not where I thought the film was going, and it introduces some new ideas at a moment that should be wrapping things up, and I’m not sure what those ideas do to the rest of the film for me. I think there’s something to the notion of Gary King finally becoming a legend, a sort of Richard Matheson payoff to his misguided quest, but it seems like the way they do it is a pretty big thing to buy into as we’re cutting to the “Directed By” credit.

Bill Pope’s photography is great, and he seems to really synch up with Edgar’s energy well. Paul Machliss isn’t trying to cut the film the same way as some of Edgar’s earlier work. I think fans who expect the same sort of flashback gag structure that has been so key to some of his other movies will miss it here, but it feels to me like an evolution. I think Wright seems well aware of how much of a trap too much style can be and I’m sure if you’re a fan of someone like a Brian De Palma, you can see how he pursued his own aesthetic interests across a range of mainstream and personal periods. Steven Price’s score is great, especially as it’s woven around a flood of English music from the period that is chosen with a scientifically precise feel for time and place. Soup Dragons, Happy Mondays, Blur, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, Pulp, James, Suede, The Stone Roses, The Sundays, The Sisters of Mercy, the everlovin’ Housemartins… I mean… THE HOUSEMARTINS. There’s a Soul II Soul track. It’s so perfectly utilized. And yet by packing the soundtrack to the breaking point with that many familiar sounds, Wright’s doing something very intentional, playing on the way that barrage will work as an aural time machine for many of the people watching the film. It’s thematically sort of brilliant.

“The World’s End” doesn’t feel like the end of things for Wright, Frost, and Pegg as collaborators, but it does feel like they’re starting to evolve to some new perspective on the sorts of things they’ve been doing for the last decade. When they made “Spaced,” they were throwing everything they’d ever absorbed right back onto the screen. It felt like Edgar Wright was a Terminator programmed by Jonathan Ross’s “Incredibly Strange Film Show” and aimed right at the collective geek brainpan, but he’s working from such an instinctual place from picture to picture that it feels like he is way more than just the nostalgia, way more than just the film nerd vocabulary. These guys are hitting 40. I can only speak for myself when I say that hitting 40 was incredibly difficult for me. I spent most of that year really wrestling with my sense of accomplishment and identity and legacy in my personal and professional lives. I emerged from it with a much better sense of who I am, but it’s hard. It can be a tough milestone, and “The World’s End” feels honest in the way it articulates a vague yawning horror that you feel at the idea that you’re never going to be young again, and you may well have passed your prime without even realizing it.

“The World’s End” is open now in the UK and it opens in the US on August 23rd.