Six years have passed since Spaced cadets Simon Pegg and Nick Frost last appeared in a film by Edgar Wright, the whip-smart British satirist who directed Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. It’s fitting, then, that the trio’s comeback collaboration concerns old friends getting back together again, even if the reunion depicted onscreen goes much less smoothly than the creative one that spawned it. In The World’s End, Pegg (who co-wrote the script with Wright) plays an indelible new specimen of stunted manhood—an aging, alcoholic fuck-up, pushing 40 but still partying (and dressing) like it’s 1990. As a young man, Pegg was a carefree leader of the pack, and he remains hung up on one epic event from his formative years, a pub crawl that he and his four teenage mates nearly completed two decades earlier. Keen to relive those ancient glory days, the washed-up wild man coerces his grown companions (Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and—in a role-reversing straight-man turn—Frost) into heading back to their sleepy hometown for another crack at the 12-stop “golden mile.” Trouble is, the hamlet seems to have forgotten its prodigal son entirely, while his old friends only wish they could. (Frost, specifically, harbors resentment over a gradually revealed betrayal from years earlier.)
Until about the midway mark, The World’s End sticks to that basic scenario, finding humor in the sad spectacle of a guy clinging desperately to his auspicious youth. (The film sometimes plays like a farcical answer to Oslo, August 31st, especially during an opening, 16mm flashback to the seminal booze odyssey.) Eventually, however, an element of the fantastic presents itself; as in Shaun and Hot Fuzz, character-based comedy fits snugly into an affectionate genre spoof. Though the commercials have done their damnedest to spoil the fun, it’s best not to reveal which durable cinematic classic Wright pays tribute to here. Suffice to say he’s taken one of the most metaphorically potent premises in science fiction and used it to explore the disillusioning experience of going home again, especially when the old haunts have been “Starbucksed” (as Considine puts it). The special effects are delightfully creepy, indebted as they are to at least two milestones of ’70s sci-fi, and Wright stages the destructive bar brawls with the same kinetic playfulness he brought to the fight scenes of his masterpiece, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. In an age when comedy directors seem content to simply point the camera at their actors and let them riff, Wright brings an anomalous precision to his craft. He can score a big laugh with nothing more than an inventive whip of the camera or a well-timed cut.
Like Hot Fuzz, which was also built around a conspiracy of social improvement, The World’s End suffers ever so slightly from sluggish pacing. Its pub-crawl premise is both an inspiration and a minor liability: Though there’s clever symbolic value in having this nostalgic character literally retrace his steps, it becomes increasingly hard to buy—once the shit hits the fan, anyway—that Pegg and his posse would stick to the itinerary. Those are minor quibbles: Easily one of the year’s best comedies, the movie thrives off the chemistry between its leads, with Pegg painting a very funny portrait of emotional paralysis and Frost demonstrating a heretofore unseen talent for intimidation. Wright, meanwhile, rallies with a strangely affecting finale, offering a corrective to the stealth lectures of American man-child comedies by presenting immaturity as a fundamental component of the human spirit. That’s an odd place for the director and his stars to land, given their constant commitment to creative evolution. Far from pining for their glory days, Wright and company are living them now. The World’s End looks, despite its title, like just the beginning for all involved.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review, visit The World's End's Spoiler Space.