Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Waiting 5 Years for The World's End

     Back in 2004, director Edgar Wright released a lower-budget film starring then-unknowns (to American audiences, anyway, unless they had seen the British comedy Spaced) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost about two down-on-their-luck Man Children who get thrown into the middle of a zombie invasion. That film--Shaun of the Dead--was utterly brilliant, filled with lightning-fast and dense levels of jokes and a perfect combination of parody and homage. It's one of my favorite comedies of all time. The three followed that up with 2007's Hot Fuzz, another hilarious creation that did to buddy-cop movies what Shaun did to flesh-eating zombies ones. But this was always going to be a trilogy of like-minded cinema--dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto--so it was no surprise to their fans when The World's End was announced: Wright would again direct, Pegg and Frost would star, and the trio would be taking on another story of men who have stalled in their growing up--this time with a science-fiction flair.
     But now the viewer has a dilemma: upon watching The World's End, does a huge fan of the cast and director's previous work (me), especially after waiting patiently for over five years, judge the film on its own merits, or as the culmination of one of the best comedy "trilogies" in my lifetime. Because there is no doubt in my mind: The World's End is not as good as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Or as good as Wright's separate directing effort, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Or as good as Wright's writing partner Joe Cornish's Attack the Block. But if I could take a time machine back to the minute before the lights in the theater slowly dimmed, and then scrub my mind of all expectation and pre-conceived notions and then enjoy the movie as a completely singular experience, The World's End would be really good comedy. But like the robots in the film, I'm controlled. Controlled by this critical voice inside of me, begging to be let out through the words that I'm typing: the final Cornetto chapter is fun and often funny (this time more smiles than outright laughs), featuring a middle portion that is very stellar, but it ultimately becomes a bit repetitive and features a final third (especially the climax) that lacks the grounded-in-reality feeling that anchored the human aspect of Shaun and Fuzz that made those two films so hilarious and heartfelt.
     Okay: I'm finished talking about Shaun and Fuzz. But it had to be done. Pegg stars as Gary, and this time his character has much bigger problems than just losing his girlfriend and low-paying job. He's an alcoholic, and a night nearly twenty years in his past still haunts him: that's the evening when he and his four best mates tried to finish "The Golden Mile", a pub crawl featuring twelve different bars. One pint at each. So he comes up with a great idea: a getting-the-band-back-together style reunion, corralling the old friends (who are almost 40 years old now) to relive the "best night of his life". It isn't easy. Gary is a major dickhead obsessed with his own nostalgia about the good ol' days. His character is borderline unlikable, but the film's set-up provides him with a major shot at redemption.
     It takes some work, but Gary eventually gets his buddies to commit. Great British actors Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman portray three of them, but most notably Nick Frost portrays Andy, a man with a successful career and whose life was completely altered by Gary and the pub crawl back when they were young blokes. All the characters are treading mid-life water in one way or another: a boring marriage, a stalling career, a fixation on a long lost love. But other than Frost's Andy, none of them noticeably stand out. But this part of the film is where The World's End does stand out: like all trademark Wright, the jokes are fast moving and interplay between Pegg and Frost is great, as usual. And the 4 friends' growing dissent about Gary and the sadness about his life is intriguing and worthwhile. However, it's soon clear that the town of Newton Haven, where pub crawl takes place, is not like it used to be. (SPOILER ALERT) Have you ever been back to a place, and you get that feeling that everything is the same but everything is different? It's like that, except nearly everyone you can see has turned into or is being controlled by robot aliens from outer space.
     The set-up is vintage Wright: he loves taking characters with basic human problems and throwing them into a frenetic and beer-fueled barrage of surprise violence and wry humor. Gary goes into the loo to take a wee, and he gets into an altercation with a teenager who turns out to have super-human strength and blue liquid for blood. This fight turns into an all-out brawl with all of the characters and a number of robots. It was really fun and surprising, finishing with signature Nick Frost flourish. The action is really clear and choreographed, and doesn't rely on quick-cut editing to seem fast and confusing. And it's here, just after midway through the film, that The World's End peaks. The rest is similar to what happens after one too many beers: a little tiresome, a little sappy, and some things just don't make a whole lot of sense.
   You could run it through the metaphor machine: the robots are what they are becoming, held down by their tired lives. The town of Newton Haven is Home once Home isn't where you live anymore. But it doesn't delve too far into these ponderings, instead focusing on squishing robots heads and one-liners that are amusing but rarely hilarious. Gary's mission--above all else--is to finish the pub crawl even among the spurts of blue blood, and even with leaving the rest of his friends stranded yet again. Sometimes The World's End feels like it was fueled more by crystal meth than by alcohol, with Wright switching from tearful confessions to robot chase scenes to buddy love within a few seconds of each other. It's scattershot, and much less focused than his previous efforts, but it's still enjoyable.
     The ending is particularly what sealed the deal for me: it takes a few too many left turns that go too far over-the-top and take away from what some of the best aspects of The World's End are--the friendships, the nostalgia, the focus on Gary's alcoholism. The best sci-fi movies of recent years are the ones that live and thrive within their own world with basic human problems and solutions, instead of relying on last minute reveals and exposition. The World's End--at the end--just takes it further than it needs to go. The reason that the three films of Wright's career with Pegg and Frost are dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto is because each film--like the famous three-flavored ice cream treat--is connected and part of the same overall package, similar to America's Neapolitan brand. But like a container of Neapolitan, there are only two flavors that I love. The other is good...but it just doesn't compare.     (B)

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