Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cinema File #241: "The World's End" Review

Edgar Wright’s past collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been marked by brilliant deconstructions of beloved genres, from the zombie rom com Shaun of the Dead to the showcase of nearly every action movie cliché imaginable in Hot Fuzz. The third and supposedly final installment in their thematic Cornettos Trilogy tackles a type of movie that until now I had erroneously believed to be somewhat uniquely American, specifically that nameless genre of comedic films set amid one epic night of drunken and or drug-fueled debauchery, seen most recently here in the states in the absolutely abysmal 21 and Over. Though certainly better than the misadventures of Jeff Chang and co., The World’s End isn’t the funniest of the previous films (that’s still Shaun of the Dead) or the most novel concept (still Hot Fuzz), but in the end it might just be the most well put together and ultimately satisfying of the trilogy, and once you realize what its all really been about, maybe the most heartfelt as well.

The World’s End follows a group of old friends brought together after years apart by their erstwhile leader to re-live a legendary 12 pint pub crawl in their home town, only to find that both they and the town have changed in some very significant ways. It didn’t occur to me until I actually sat down to watch it, but in a weird way this movie is really just the first two movies in the trilogy combined into one. You get the small provincial town with a dangerous secret from Hot Fuzz, and the crew of drunkards forced to fight off an army of oddly easy to dispatch paranormal creatures from Shaun of the Dead. Realizing this, I suddenly started appreciating more so than I ever have before just how much all of these movies rely on the humor found in repetition. Within each movie and interconnected between them, jokes both subtle and obvious have built a strange little universe to explore and enjoy, trying to pick out all the references and familiar motifs beyond just the annual fence gag and the fact that someone’s gotta eat an ice cream cone at some point. It is a testament to the skill Wright and Pegg wield as writers that something as simple as a recurring cutaway to a series of beers coming out of a tap can be made funny without any further comment.

Pegg plays Gary King, a man stuck in a past colored by nostalgia and trying to drag all of his old mates back with him, despite the fact that they’ve all spent the last twenty years or so moving on with their lives, mostly in an effort to get away from him. He’s the kind of character that in a less-well written movie might have been given a pass for his boorish nonsense due to his otherwise innate silly charm, but instead he becomes the vessel through which the film takes all of your expectations about what a movie like this should be and completely subverts them. Its all at once ingeniously simple and completely surprising as the jovial mystique of the lovable drunk is stripped away and what you thought was just a silly romp becomes a literally sobering reflection on the real world consequences of alcoholism and arrested development, while still managing to be consistently funny throughout. In King, Pegg gives us the archetypal anti-hero that we always love because he does whatever he wants whenever he wants, and then asks the obvious question that for some reason is never asked in movies - specifically, what toll does that freedom bring to everyone else, and what does it say about us that we want so desperately to have it?

A movie with only one character as brilliantly realized and charismatic as Gary King would usually call it a day, but in The World's End, with the exception of a pseudo love interest who in the end isn't really given much to do, pretty much everyone in this ensemble cast shines. I almost wonder if after playing two bumbling oafs in the previous movies, Nick Frost had something in his contract insisting that he be allowed to legitimately kick some ass in the last movie they were gonna do, and whether or not that's the case, they certainly give him the opportunity, and he runs with it. The film starts out as a story of one man's mission with the other friends really just along for the ride, but eventually becomes the sort of buddy comedy between Pegg and Frost that this trilogy is known for, just with the maturity levels reversed, and the depth of their friendship rivals even Shaun of the Dead, even though the characters spend most of the movie hating each other. Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine are both great as the meek Peter and lovelorn Steven respectively, but special mention has to go out to Martin Freeman, who grows into what becomes a very multi-dimensional role perfectly. And if that isn't enough, you get Bill Nighy in possibly the best cameo he's done in any of these movies.

And I haven't even gotten to the army of evil killer robots yet! If I had one extremely minor criticism of the film, it is that it seems to be structured in such a way as to assume you don't know that the twist is coming, as if they made the movie thinking the whole "alien robot duplicates" thing wasn't going to be plastered all over the marketing. If only someone at Universal had had the foresight and the nerve to try to pretend this movie was just about silly drunks, I think the impact of the science fiction elements would have been so much more satisfying. The moment that they reveal themselves is sudden, but by that point you're already expecting it, and it reminded me of the scene in From Dusk Till Dawn when all the strippers suddenly just turn into vampires after forty minutes of a gritty crime movie, only that scene stays with me more sharply because at the time, I had the luxury of not knowing it was coming when I first saw it. Maybe in ten years when we're far enough away from the ads and some unsuspecting people catch this on TV with no other context, the shock they were trying to go for might work better.

Actually, there is one other little problem, but I don't even know if I would consider it a full on criticism. The aliens themselves are one of the more interesting takes on the body snatching villain I've seen in a long time, even independent of how well their unique methods and motives fit with the larger themes of the film, but once the final showdown takes place, we're treated to an extended epilogue that takes the movie into a strange new direction that is so out of left field and needlessly complicated that I'm still struggling to figure out how I feel about it. On the one hand, I think it sacrifices a lot of the good will the film builds up just for a gag requiring an apocalyptic setting that isn't necessarily funny enough to justify losing a happier ending. On the other hand, the mythology introduced in the last five minutes of the movie is so intricate and intriguing that it almost makes me angry that they included it at all knowing that this would be the final installment of a trilogy and most likely will have no direct sequel. I want to see THAT movie, but I guess instead I'll just have to settle for Ant Man, who it suddenly occurs to me should really be played by Simon Pegg.

Coming away from it, The World's End is easily my favorite film of the year so far, though admittedly this year hasn't been exactly stellar at least with mainstream wide release fair. In a summer movie season with some of the worst science fiction films and some of the worst comedies in recent memory, its a pleasant surprise to find a sci-fi comedy that does both so well. What I admire most about it is just how well all the different elements are brought together in the end. Every word in this script has a bigger meaning or thematic connection to something else, and so much of it is done with such style and subtlety that you almost never notice the pieces falling into place until the movie wants you to. The final conflict between the surviving humans and the alien consciousness controlling the machines feels almost like a drunken, belligerent Sherlock Holmes summation as all the clues are put in order revealing what this puzzle was all trying to say, and the result is so much more interesting and funny and profound than a couple of guys having a laugh at the pub. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both have a special place in my heart, and at this point The World's End is a little too fresh in my mind for me to make the leap of saying its the best of the trilogy, but I would not be the least bit surprised if I arrive at the assessment in the years to come.

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