Who doesn’t love a good thematic trilogy? Three Colours? Rosselini’s Post-War trilogy? Fassbinder’s BRD? Filmmakers can explore ideas of genre and the era in which they live through loose thematic constructs that somehow inform upon one another. Often a filmmaker, like Antonioni, will cast the same actor in different roles in each film, playing with concepts of identity and performance.
The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy may have emerged through a joke cracked by Edgar Wright in a press conference, but there’s no doubt it caught the imagination. Wright’s Shaun of the Dead had garnered quite the (deserved) cult following, and his follow-up film Hot Fuzz was a rollicking, hysterical, if somewhat messily executed comedy hit. The concept of a trilogy featuring the superb comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in differing roles, each deconstructing the pulpiest of genres – horror, action and science-fiction – seemed too good to be true. And it was.
Crashing into the final hurdle like a wooden fence Simon Pegg just can’t leap, The World’s End is like eating a mint Cornetto only to find the bottom of the cone is not filled with chocolate, only blue goo and disappointment. Like Hot Fuzz, which suddenly switches genre with every passing act (from odd couple/fish out of water comedy, to slasher movie, to high-octane action flick), The World’s End switches tack midway through. Here, its Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? plot mutates into a clunky, misdirected Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody so suddenly that you’d swear you had just left the cinema and entered another movie entirely. And neither movie was very good.
Pegg, who has almost perfected the role of the likeable loser, here plays the unlikeable loser, Gary King. In the late ’80s Gary was the leader of the pack; not the coolest guy in school maybe, but certainly the most confident. Over the years his friends moved on and grew up, but he never changed, and is now a pathetic manchild, still dressing the same, driving the same car and listening to all the same music. An alcoholic and a drug addict, it is far less believable that he survived the 1990s than that his home town has been taken over by aliens.
Desperate to rekindle the magic of the “best night of his life”, an aborted pub crawl taking in all of Newton Haven’s 12 pubs, Gary monstrously manipulates his one-time friends into giving it another shot. There’s Steven (Paddy Considine), the quietly confident one; Oliver (Martin Freeman), the geeky professional one; Peter (Eddie Marsan), the one who was bullied in school and now feels bullied by life; and Andrew (Frost), the one who has suffered the most from trying to give Gary the benefit of the doubt.
Obnoxiously mirroring all the events of their first pub crawl so that we always know exactly what is about to happen, the quintet work their way along the ‘Golden Mile’, before an encounter with some humourless teens in a pub toilet reveals that many of the locals have been replaced by literally blue-blooded alien replicants. Fearful the malevolent powers that be might target people doing anything out of sorts, the group decide the discreet thing to do is politely finish the pub crawl and get thoroughly annihilated, then get thoroughly out of town.
Most of the faults with The World’s End land in Gary’s lap. He may be a believable character, but he is a despicable one, and nostalgic attempts to redeem him are repeatedly undone as he time and again proves himself to be beyond saving, and beyond worth saving. In Shaun of the Dead Shaun learned (like Spaced’s Tim Bisley) that it was possible to take responsibility for his life while also maintaining a childishness that allowed him to be himself. Here Gary never even begins to grow up, he just betrays himself and his friends again and again. For those who found Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim obnoxious, you’ve seen nothing yet.
Worse still though, Wright and Pegg’s screenplay just isn’t funny. The jokes aren’t here. Oliver’s geekiness is highlighted through his repeated utterance of “WTF?” instead of actually swearing – it pays off in one decent joke, but by then you’re so irritated with the character it’s just too little too late. The classic Wright wordplay is present, but the style is tired from overuse, and there’s nothing to match the banter of “Dogs can’t look up” from Shaun or the farmers and their mothers exchange from Hot Fuzz.
Perhaps the finest element of Shaun, the pre-drinking speech that foreshadows the film to come, is here done to death. Not only does the film’s preamble give the entire game away, but in every pub the name of the establishment somehow relates to the events that occur there. By the time you get to pub 11, ‘The Hole in the Wall’, you’re not paying attention to the ‘drama’ unfolding but rather waiting for the damn wall to fall down. You wind up frustrated at the characters for not realising they’re so clearly in an Edgar Wright movie. The whole project feels self-aware and self-important, reeking of Wright’s comedic egomania.
Bizarre music choices aside, the big disappointment here is the film’s uninspired look, which never shows any of the energy of the earlier films in the trilogy. The fight scenes have a kinetic bar brawling energy, but they’re so distractingly choreographed that they never become thrilling, more puzzling. The alien robot designs, while original, come off looking cheap.
Pegg and Frost appear bored with their roles, with only Paddy Considine really giving all he’s got. Freeman, perhaps exhausted from all his Hobbit-ing and Sherlock-ing is hardly present, phoning his whole performance in via a Bluetooth. Marsan proves he has mettle for comedy, but he’s not given much to work with. As Oliver’s sister and a romantic distraction for both Gary and Steven, Rosamund Pike excuses herself well. A brilliant stroke of casting for the villain in Hot Fuzz is repeated here with a similar casting, but it’s far less successful.
The World’s End is at its best when it’s dissecting British drinking culture. Sterilised Starbucks-like pubs and school discos are featured and given the ribbing they deserve. But the film never settles on what it feels about alcohol as social lubricant versus social epidemic. In one of the finest dialogue scenes in the film Andrew gives a speech about how brave it is to be a teetotaller, turning down pints with the lads and standing up for himself. Not long after he is downing shots because the story demands it. It’s quite a shameful cop-out.
The character’s surnames – King, Knightley, Prince, etc – hint at a fantasy idea that has no place in this film, and is unfortunately repeated near the film’s denouement. You’re left wondering if Wright has even made the film he wanted to, or got lost somewhere in the process. There are clever ideas at play once the characters arrive at The World’s End pub, but they don’t even begin to make up for the drudgery of the film to that point.
Recently Despicable Me 2 had a better Body Snatchers joke in it than anything Wright and Pegg conjure up here, and the whole film suffers from a bipolar uncertainty as to what exactly it is. Sadly, the only thing it definitely is is a panegyric to Gary King, perhaps the most hate-worthy protagonist in modern cinema. He’s a King nobody should want. An act of regicide would be thoroughly welcome.
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)