Friday, August 23, 2013

The World's End: What a way to go!

The World's End (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for violence, pervasive profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

This is, without question, the funniest pub crawl ever brought to the big screen.

Another pub, and still only the same single flavor of beer. By now, our heroes — from
left, Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Gary (Simon Pegg), Steven (Paddy
Considine) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) — are startng to wonder if something other
than franchise blandness might be to blame...
It’s also a cheeky delight that gets much of its fizz from the slow, tantalizing unveiling of What’s Really Going On: a reveal that deserves to remain a surprise for every viewer, much in the manner of 1998’s The Truman Show. That’s unlikely — which is a true shame — in an era when media outlets scramble over each other in an effort to unleash mega-spoilers.

Because The World’s End is best viewed the way my companions and I did last night: with an advance preview audience that hadn’t the faintest idea what would come next.

So if this review remains elliptical and vague in spots, blame my desire not to spoil any of the fun.

Life hasn’t been kind to Gary King (Simon Pegg). Twenty years ago, his compulsory secondary education at an end, he was on top of his world: young, free-spirited and popular with the lads and lasses. By way of celebrating their impending release from school, Gary and his four mates vowed to drink their way through the 12 pubs dotting the “golden mile” of their bucolic UK community of Newton Haven.

They didn’t quite make it, but that’s immaterial; the camaraderie was key.

This introductory flashback unfolds, like a series of video snapshots, to Pegg’s sassy off-camera narration. But his enthusiasm fades as we’re brought to the present day, to discover that Gary is sharing this saga during a group therapy session.

Time has moved on; Gary hasn’t. He’s still a self-absorbed layabout: a poster child for arrested adolescents who failed to launch. A 40-year-old man (to quote this film’s equally droll press notes) “trapped at the cigarette end of his teens.” And it eats at him.

His former best buds, long estranged, have done better. More or less. Andy (Nick Frost) is a corporate attorney; Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a buttoned-down real-estate agent who shifts seven-figure properties. Steven (Paddy Considine) founded a successful start-up, sold out when the time was right, and now enjoys the companionship of a personal trainer half his age.

Peter (Eddie Marsan), the meekest member of the one-time gang, got stuck with the family business — selling cars — and seems little more than an afterthought to his wife and two children.

No surprise, then, that Gary first broaches his “inspired” plan with Peter: to re-visit that tempestuous night two decades back, but this time to succeed ... starting with The First Post and concluding with The World’s End. (Just in passing, all 12 of these Newton Haven ale houses are named for actual English pubs.)

Through enthusiasm, persuasion, guile and outright deception, Gary gathers everybody in the old gang: even Andy, his one-time best friend, who still has serious issues due to some long-ago betrayal. (Details to follow.)

From the get-go, this film is propelled by its rat-a-tat dialogue: a barrage of verbal sparring, witty repartee and one-line zingers. Conversation hasn’t been this rich since the breathless pacing of Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies — okay, Aaron Sorkin gets close — and goodness, but those days, and this style of wit, have been missed.

Director Edgar Wright and Pegg collaborated on the tart-tongued script, which must be three times the length of what’s needed for an average 109-minute movie, due to sheer verbiage. It’s all razor-sharp, frequently hilarious — random quips prompting enough laughter to drown out the next two or three equally funny comments — and directed with snap throughout.

Indeed, one can get exhausted while trying to follow the non-sequiturs, as our five not-quite-friends-anymore gets increasingly squiffed and argue about everything from pronouns to long-simmering grudges. One of the latter erupts into full view with the arrival of Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), who once had a meaningless shag with Gary, while being secretly adored by Steven.

Everybody displays superb comic timing, their verbal sniping enhanced further by Wright’s deft direction and Paul Machliss’ slick editing. You can’t help wanting to applaud.

Speaking of which, our audience did spontaneously applaud one key scene, taking place in the loo at The Cross Hands. That doesn’t happen very often, and rest assured; it was well-deserved.

But things aren’t all kicks and grins. Wright and Pegg score some early social commentary with a mordant running gag, as our gang discovers — despite sporting wonderful names such as The Two-Headed Dog, The Trusty Servant and The Famous Cock — that all their beloved pubs of memory have been homogenized, and now share the same plastic ambiance, the same franchise menu, and (horrors!) the same single flavor of beer.

I wish I could remember the caustic line that defines this tragic loss of British tradition, because it’s a corker ... and a reminder that Wright and Pegg have more on their minds than mere verbal slapstick.

Despite the increasing haze of too much ale, though, Gary and his mates begin to wonder if there’s more to Newton Haven’s bland monotony than meets the eye. Longtime genre fans will appreciate this oddly quiet community’s resemblance to Little Storping in the Swuff, the equally sleepy — and creepy — township setting of a classic 1960s episode from Brit-TV’s The Avengers.

Gary, stubbornly determined to chase the blues away, even as things get progressively weirder, is the first to discover ... ah, but no: That would be telling.

The World’s End comes from the same manic team — director Wright, writers Pegg and Wright, and stars Pegg and Frost — that brought us 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz. The similarities actually go much deeper; the boys also brought along their sizable repertory company, and you’ll recognize many familiar faces. Freeman and Julia Deakin (here as a B&B landlady) have appeared in all three films, as has the marvelous Bill Nighy (although it’ll take you awhile to spot him here).

Former James Bonds also have a habit of popping up. Timothy Dalton played a pivotal role in Hot Fuzz, and Pierce Brosnan appears here as one of younger Gary’s disapproving teachers.

I also should mention, for the uninitiated, that The World’s End is the third entry in what has come to be known as the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” due to each film’s cheeky placement of a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream. Strawberry was the option of choice for Shaun of the Dead, signifying that horror comedy’s gorier elements; Hot Fuzz name-checked the original blue Cornetto, as befit its send-up of police dramas.

Don’t blink, and you’ll spot this new film’s reference to green mint chocolate chip. Draw your own conclusions about which genre is being spoofed.

I’m not sure “acting” per se can be discussed or debated in a project of this nature; Pegg, Frost and their colleagues play archetypes more than credible characters, their interplay more akin to the zany, tongue-twisting efforts of Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers. And yet personalities do emerge, particularly as panic sets in.

Marsan is appropriate woeful as poor, pitiful, put-upon Peter, while the dashing Considine makes Steven the one guy most willing to embrace Gary’s damn-the-consequences eagerness. Freeman’s Oliver is stiffly, starchly formal; Frost’s teddy bear-esque Andy, stubbornly on the wagon at first, erupts with hidden fury as the situation spirals out of control. Pike, in turn, makes Sam a gal worth remembering.

Their impressive talents notwithstanding, the film belongs to Pegg, whose Gary is a force of nature: a self-absorbed loser, to be sure, but a truly hilarious one. His bemused expressions, exasperated double-takes and mangled efforts at human speech are beyond priceless. It’s a true shame that actors never get awards for this sort of performance, because it’s one for the record books.

Equally funny, as well, is Gary’s single-minded determination — no matter what else happens — to down a brew at every one of his beloved 12 pubs. That gag also picks up steam, as this film roars into its flat-out-exciting third act.

Let me mention, as well, that Wright gets impressive production results for this film’s modest $20 million budget: far, far more than bloated failures such as this summer’s The Lone Ranger delivered for close to 10 times that amount. Hollywood could take lessons from our thrifty British cousins.

I truly hate to think that Wright, Pegg, Frost & Co. are done with their Cornetto efforts. Each collaboration has been fresh and completely different from what came before, and plenty of genres remain to be lampooned. More to the point, Cornetto has several as-yet unreferenced flavors.

Douglas Adams turned his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” into a five-book series, and probably would have written more, had he not died too young. Surely these cheeky British lads can do the same.

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