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A movie by and for beer.

This has got to be one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2013 if you go off how people felt (and still feel) about Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Yet, I’ve had to explain to people what movie I’m talking about when I say I saw The World’s End. Maybe the title just isn’t memorable. Fuck knows. It should be, though, because it’s perfect. The partnership of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost is the sort of stuff from which perfection is made, if you ask most people. Personally, I’ve never been quite as captivated by the thematically-linked Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy as many others. I’m not the guy who quotes Shaun or Hot Fuzz like I invented it (I’ve never said “Yarp”) but I do love all three films. Perhaps I connected with The World’s End the most, though, and it is almost certainly going to remain my favorite of the three even when the afterglow of the first viewing fades some.

Anyone who has seen the others will already be aware that these aren’t just regular comedies with genre wrappers. Each has its things to say about masculinity, friendship, personal responsibility, and growing up in general. The World’s End further explores some of the same thematic ground as the other two, but they are a spiritual trilogy rather than some kind of narrative one, and as such the familiarity is potent without being overwhelming or repetitive. The beating heart of these movies has always been, well, heart and The World’s End has massive, beautiful heart. Enough heart for days.

It’s also more of an action film than Shaun of the Dead. It’s sort of like Hot Fuzz with bar fights instead of gun and a gleeful commitment to the kind of whiz-bang editing and chop socky that Wright picked up doing Scott PilgrimThe World’s End sometimes feels like three movies in one, any of which more than capable of being expanded into fullness on its own. Yet all three inner movies remain tangled up with everything else the whole shebang is doing in some kind of weird alchemy that shouldn’t work and somehow does. It’s the kind of movie I must spoil, but should be engaged by those who haven’t yet seen it with as little foreknowledge as possible. I saw it only knowing its basic premise (which is enough) and not really having an idea of where it was all going until it got there. Coupled with its surprising climax and one of the all-time great (audacious, even) epilogues, it’s probably best if you see The World’s End without having read this review first.

FAIR WARNING, KIDDIES. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

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Aww, cute!

The first movie within the movie is the one where Gary King (Simon Pegg) reunites his four best mates in order to complete a pub crawl that Gary still thinks was the best night of his life. In their hometown there is a spread called the Golden Mile: twelve ridiculously British pubs making for an epic crawl that the Gary and Pals of 20 years ago never managed to complete. Pegg gives us pretty much everything we need to know about Gary to justify the abrupt way he decides to “get the band back together” in an opening voice-over that would have felt a bit unnecessary if not for the way it subtly tells the audience that this movie within the movie is actually kind of a character study.

Gary King is such an insolent, unrepentant prick that it’s only Pegg’s caffeinated (coked up?) performance that keeps the character just this side of audience sympathy until a breaking point later, when some walls need to come down to truly humanize Gary fucking King. Up to that point, he lies and cheats and manipulates in the sort of selectively aware, oblivious way that the canny audience will remember was also true of, if in a slightly less abrasive manner, Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim. I don’t think there’s too much influence from that movie on this one, but there’s definitely a bit (particularly in how the fights are shot) and I think Gary sort of resembling a grown up Scott in terms of his careless and selfish disposition is a clear example. In other words, Gary is like Scott if Scott didn’t get his shit together and confront Ramona, Gideon, and himself. Gary is just this side of charming-in-spite-of-himself assholery. I think Pegg is within his skillset to keep Gary a “funny asshole” instead of an “asshole asshole” but it’s a close call that is totally intentional. We’re supposed to see that fine line.

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Transitions!

He gets his friends Steve (Paddy Considine), Ollie (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Andy (Nick Frost) all together again by promising each of them that everyone else is coming. Some falling out in Gary and Andy’s past has them all pretty skeptical that Andy will show, which I think is the reason why they all actually do. I mean, besides curiosity in general there’s a strong hint that everybody is a bit invested in the mechanics of Gary and Andy reconciling their differences. Later, when we find out that Gary left Andy to be hospitalized and holding the bill for an autowreck, we get why it seems far-fetched to the others that Andy would be coming. There’s this beautiful unspoken sense of “well if Andy is down, we have to be down because Gary never did anything that bad to us”. I’m sure this will ring true for many groups of old friends who sometimes need a good excuse to be in the same room with each other.

Now this contributes hugely to why I connected with The World’s End so much. It’s not that I didn’t sympathize with Sean or Nick from their respective movies, but I have a lot more Gary King in me than I do either of those guys. More than I care to admit, really. I would never say I was as brazenly self-deluded as Gary seems to be (he plays it up because he knows its what others think and expect, the facade only dropping occasionally) but others might say that about me so I guess I would have to concede the point. Where I’m going with this is that I want to explain why Gary King hit me like a brick in a sock. Don’t get me wrong, his dickishness is exaggerated and comical as such, but there’s enough truth in there to make guys who have been the Gary King once or twice pause and reflect. Most movies don’t have that power. The World’s End does. And it’s a fucking comedy. Kinda puts movies like Grown Ups 2 in perspective, I think.

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Gary is sort of like a British Kenny Powers.

As often as there’s the selfish, charismatic friend there is also the abused and supportive friend, or the overshadowed rival friend. I’ve been both of those, too. While I personally connected most to Gary, others will also find a similar level of connection to characters like Steve or Andy. This is not crucial to the experience of watching the film, of course, it just helps that these characters always feel like real people even when they are indulging some rather unreal heroics.

Nick Frost, for example, gets to play an action hero in The World’s End. He is about as against type for that, in terms of conventional action films, as it gets. Yeah he got to do a lot of action stuff in Hot Fuzz as well, but The World’s End puts him front and center as the most badass of all Gary’s crew. Watching Nick Frost beat an army of robots with a couple of bar stools is practically a spiritual moment as it holds a stiff middle finger to decades of unspoken acceptance that big fat guys like Frost can’t do shit like this. Part of the reason this movie works so well is that it doesn’t pause on a thing like this and wink at the audience to make sure we all understand how zany and against expectations this is. It’s played totally straight, as if it’s not against expectations. This makes it work without the kind of self-congratulation that makes this sort of thing feel cheap or just for laughs.

Similarly, there’s a playful sense of the classic love interest element in The World’s End that also plays against audience expectations. Gary sees himself as the kind of lovable rogue that makes inappropriate passes at Sam (Rosamund Pike) and gets closer to her with every slap. He thinks he’s Han Solo. In many movies, Adam Sandler movies say, this is the kind of shit that will eventually work out for the hero. He will erode her walls, drop her guard, and finally get in her pants after all as she can’t help but love him. Better than that routine, The World’s End has Sam say to Gary that he’s not a bad person, just bad boyfriend material. She’s too old for his shit, in other words. It’s Steve, a man having a subtle and undealt with mid-life crisis who really deserves the shot with Sam after a life of never having the guts to tell her how he feels. Usually, the kind of drunken confession he makes to her would simply be embarrassing, but here it is heartfelt and a bit sad in the context of this group’s history and Gary’s treatment of Sam when they were all younger. That it’s Steve who “gets the girl” and that “the girl” is completely an agent in her “getting” is one of the many, many quiet ways that The World’s End demonstrates an above average degree of emotional intelligence and nuanced characterization.

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In another nice reversal, it’s Frost playing the guy who mostly has his shit together this time. Not a bumbling oaf at all.

The robots in the film were featured in the marketing so it should be clear going in that The World’s End is (secondary to the friends on a pub crawl angle) a science fiction movie. Most of the exposition about it is saved until the end, so that it will have maximum impact in terms of how the characters react and what they ultimately decide to do. It also makes all of the ridiculous fisticuffs take on an extra layer of hilarity that is almost certainly a joke at the expense of the people who are going to roll their eyes watching guys like Ollie and Peter essentially kung fu fighting with robots (it’s a bit more grounded than that, but you get the idea). Basically, the “Blanks” (what the robots are eventually named) aren’t actually trying to hurt these guys and are therefore much easier to dispatch than they would be otherwise. They are kind of fragile, which makes for many more great sight gags and jokes (especially Peter’s head in the epilogue) sprinkled throughout the running and fighting.

The intelligence that governs the Blanks is just trying to peacefully change human society with as minimal collateral damage as possible. Its reasons are altruistic: uplift humans to get them ready to join an enlightened galactic civilization. To do this, it has created The Network which is a series of small towns almost completely overtaken with machine duplicates of humans (which are killed and “mulched”). Little did it know that it would be a fivesome of drunken Brits that stumbled across its United Kingdom theater.

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The Blanks are actually kind of scary when they aren’t funny.

The World’s End is an extraordinarily confident and gutsy movie. I’ve given some reasons why I think so, but let me give you the best one. The emotional climax of the film is when Andy and Gary have their final confrontation over that last beer Gary desperately wants in order to fulfill the quest he has set himself on. Gary’s quest is to recapture the last night in his life that he was happy about anything. We find out in this scene that Gary is or was suicidal and the meeting we saw him attend at the opening of the film wasn’t a Narcotics Anonymous meeting (which we’re led to believe, I think). Nor was his tiny apartment really an apartment at all. Gary was at a care facility after a suicide attempt.

After we find out what Gary did to Andy, the last bit of sympathy for him as a character should mostly have flown out the window. Some people might have enough insight to recognize what’s really going on under Gary’s selfish, oblivious exterior but for narrative purposes it is a major reveal and one that engenders plenty of conflict in the audience. Potentially, we’re feeling like it’s a bit convenient that Gary actually has this sad backstory to explain all his lying and bullshit. Potentially, we’re going to be dismissive of the astonishing performances put in by Pegg and Frost as they confront these realities together. I hope that the gamble Wright, Pegg, and Frost have made here will pay off for them and that audiences admire the courage it took to not make Gary a complete irredeemable D-bag. Yeah, it’s true that not every asshole has a tragic backstory or some deeper psychological and emotional reality that informs their surface bullshit but in the warm, funny, and positive narrative of The World’s End (and the other Cornetto movies), it makes total sense. There’s a lot of risk in turning things around when we’ve spent 90% of the movie being subjected to Gary’s bullshit. Pegg is able to walk the line between keeping Gary funny enough for the audiences to stay with him, but it’s not until this moment that we fully understand the guy. Understanding is what it takes to actually have catharsis, and The World’s End gives us that catharsis. More than we bargained for, actually.

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Pegg’s tightrope performance also leaves plenty of room to like and empathize with Gary’s buddies.

With perfect timing, Gary and Andy are brought down to the bowels of the town where the Network waits to try one last time to convince them to cooperate peacefully and stop smashing robot heads. Of course the elevator down is located at the very bar that has come to symbolize journey’s end (both for the crawl story and Gary’s emotional story). Of course that bar comes to also take on a symbolic association with the actual end of the world.

This is the plot climax of the movie, where Gary and Andy face the Network in their drunken belligerence and tell it to go fuck itself. Along with Steve (who heroically shows up, another small brazen move away from expectations), they commit themselves to the fallibility of all humankind. This is the kind of stuff that at once feels right and wrong. The Network is essentially right about humans, and we’ve watched an entire movie of Gary justifying its ambition to “civilize” us. So when it finally says “fuck it” and abandons Earth and its uplift project, it’s hard to know whether Gary’s defiance is just typical Gary ruining it for everybody else, or if it’s the one time in the film that he is really and truly right. That the Network tempts him with what seems like his heart’s desire only for him to renounce it is Gary’s heroic, redemptive moment. People are going to disagree about their feelings about his choice. It’s a big moment, like when Kenzie chooses to give Amanda back to her mom in Gone Baby Gone or when the survivors of The Cabin in the Woods decide not to die to save the world. A moment people will talk about walking out of the movie.

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Rosamund Pike also gets to the ass-kicking and expectation countering.

If it was just Gary saying “no” to a cosmic intervention on all our behalf, that’d be one thing. But The Network abandoning Earth has the unexpected consequence of basically hitting the reset button on human civilization. Earth is reduced to a shambles, in classic apocalyptic faction. This leads to the audacious, ridiculous epilogue of The World’s End and the realization that a post-apocalyptic saga is the third “movie within the movie”.

The epilogue is the kind of shit no one expects from this movie or sees coming until it happens. Instead of a bit of voice-over or something explaining that yeah, the world kind of came to an end (thanks Gary!), Andy sits among some children, warming themselves by the fire, as he tells the tale. Presumably, he’s been telling the entire story to these kids including the epic pub crawl. Now, he’s at the part where they all split up and do their own thing. Except he doesn’t know what happened to Gary.

When we find out, it’s the kind of “fuck yeah!” moment that the movie completely earns. In fact, it goes three or four extra miles in terms of making us understand not only who Gary is, but why he’d have done what he did and also what he would do next. That’s almost philanthropic, let alone “earning”. I expect that some viewers of The World’s End will feel like this is less awesome and more hokey, hung up over the fact that Gary inadvertently destroyed the Earth and now gets to be Mad Max. But it’s perfect, really. Totally in line with the arc toward fulfillment, competence, and manhood that all three of the Blood and Ice Cream films contain.

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