Supposedly the final film in Edgar Wright’s loosely grouped trilogy of comedies starring Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the films) and Nick Frost, The World’s End doesn’t quite live up to its immediate predecessor, Hot Fuzz (2007), but handily bests the first film, Shaun of the Dead (2004). (Those who think anything is better with zombies may argue the point.) Wright has become a more assured and creative director (not unlike Guy Ritchie in terms of style), while both he and Pegg have become better writers. The first movie took on zombie films, the second the action picture, this one tackles science fiction. But the truth is that the genres — no matter how lovingly and knowingly spoofed — aren’t at the heart of the movies. All three films are ultimately about friendship and the charms, absurdities and pitfalls of British life. That last — the almost aggressive Britishness — makes the films play to a relatively select audience. This one is perhaps even more Brit-centric than its predecessors, but it’s not impenetrable either. If you’re in tune with the feel of British humor, the references you miss won’t matter much.
The World’s End opens with Gary King (Pegg) telling what looks like an AA group the story of a not-entirely-successful pub crawl undertaken by his friends and himself 20 years ago — an event he nonetheless remembers as the best moment of his life. It’s this memory that prompts him to track down those old friends and convince them that they need to make an attempt at that crawl again — only this time to make it through all 12 pubs (with names like The Trusty Servant and The Famous Cock) concluding at The World’s End as originally planned. The problem is that the others — Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and especially Andrew (Frost) — have all moved on with their lives. They have grown up and Gary hasn’t — or so they think. But somehow — in large part by lying to the others that Andrew has agreed to the idea — Gary manages to rope them all into this trip to their old hometown of Newton Haven for this second go at drinking their way through town.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan — not in the least because of the simmering resentment toward Gary, but also due to the homogenization of the pubs. The various watering holes have become strangely similar, as has the pub food. The boys say the bars have been “Starbucked,” but the forced quaintness might better be described as Disneyfied. It’s a lot like the carefully preserved (at any cost) village from Hot Fuzz, but designed exclusively for tourists. The film reasonably uncovers why the town is like it is — and why some of the inhabitants haven’t changed in 20 years — in a manner that feels a lot like one of those episodes of The Avengers in which Steed and Mrs. Peel uncover a dire plot. Moreover, the film explores the nature of nostalgia, friendship, conformity and the plusses and minuses of moving on.
Most amazing is the way The World’s End keeps Gary from becoming a Brit variation on those tiresome Judd Apatow man-boy characters. There’s genuine depth here — maybe even tragedy, certainly desperation. Gary is exactly the kind of irritating friend whose specialty is generating scenarios that land everyone else in the soup. But the film insists we understand why he’s that way, and even sympathize with him because, well, this is really all he has. And just maybe, he’s not entirely in the wrong. This is pretty heavy stuff for what’s essentially a wild knockabout. It’s also what makes the film so much more than just another raunchy comedy. That it makes the “end” of the world amusing and tops it off with a terrific Housemartins song is just gravy. Rated R for pervasive language, including sexual references.