Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reteam for one more round, approaching a decade since they gave British comedies a big kick in the pantaloons with now semi-permanent ITV2 fixture Shaun of the Dead. It’s hard to believe back then they weren’t a big deal to anyone beyond the Spaced initiated (it was beaten at the box office by Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore rom-com 50 First Dates – remember?), but given that Hot Fuzz made more in its opening weekend than Shaun did in its entire UK run, it’s clear how they’ve since become serious blockbuster contenders. A fair amount of critical and audience anticipation for The World’s End then, so it’s a bit of a shame that while not a failure by any means, it’s decidedly lacklustre.
The World’s End is hampered from the start by a sluggish opening, that’s light on genuine laughs and heavy on establishing characters and backstory (a group of school friends attempted a dozen pinter pub crawl nicknamed The Golden Mile, and years later one of their party, who hasn’t moved on since teenagehood, brings them all back together – one by one – to recreate it and succeed where once they failed). Then there’s the foreshadowing which once was clever but now appears clunky (as with Shaun, pub names hint at story beats), and it’s all pretty obvious that the path of their ill-fated first crawl will be repeated. There’s a faint whiff of tiredness about the thing; if Shaun was a labour of love, The World’s End feels like a burden of success, more an excuse to reunite, offer fan service (the film is overstuffed with cameos to the point of redundancy) and tick off a few more subgenre boxes and references rather than because it’s a story they were burning to tell.
What’s more interesting though are the themes at play: homogenisation of high streets and the omnipresence of chains, feeling like an outsider in your own home town, nostalgia for a past that you can never return to, growing up with and then apart from your best friends. These are all smartly established and better handled than many of the foregrounded gags, and proves once again that no comedy director pays as much attention to detail as Wright. As with Hot Fuzz, it will surely benefit from repeated viewings once the story is familiar and it’s clear where it’s all going, and at least The World’s End is more cohesive than the disjointed genre mismatch of Fuzz. And it instantly stands up better than Pegg and Frost’s non-Wright offering Paul, a so-so mix of puerile alien jokes and mean-spirited antitheist agenda. But it’s not as consistent as its forebears. The fun and thrills come in waves – a great setpiece here, a funny line of dialogue there, impressive pratfalls and slapstick come and go. But it has its lulls too, and muddy character motivations and narrative sputtering (perhaps reflecting the characters’ gradual inebriation) do their best to stifle any pace it generates.
Performances are a mixed bag too. Pegg is the stand-out; it may be his most cartoonish role yet but it’s one that ultimately works, even if only marginally justified by later poignancy. At least he seems to be having fun, something Frost in the straight man role has a harder time selling to the extent that, in the earlier sections I’m sorry to say, he’s just plain bad at acting. Paddy Considine looks similarly uncomfortable, awkward and unconvincing in a role that never once plays to his strengths (a crime when you have someone that talented in your roster), while Rosamund Pike, who proved her comedic chops with a touching and funny performance in An Education, is given a thankless love interest role and nothing else. Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman round out the gang with a bit more to do, and, to their credit, run with it, but it’s hard to believe any of them ever were bestie mates at any point in their lives.
This all sounds a bit negative, and perhaps I’m coming down too hard – it really isn’t a bad film at all, just an okay one. But it is easier to nitpick at something that almost works (using a formula that has previously yielded better results) and falls short, than highlight what it does get right, while at the same time avoiding spoilers (there are some perfect moments in there, PERFECT I TELLS YA, but in order not to spoil the surprise, you’ll have to see the film, then come and find me to go over them in person – deal?).
The top-heavy weight on the opening movements and rather by-the-numbers plotting when the sci-fi element kicks in suggests they’re not all that interested in the genre mashing any more. There was a novelty to plopping zombies in suburban London or Hollywood bullet ballets in a country town, as it hadn’t been done before – and from thence the humour arose. But there are no expectations being confounded or tropes being affectionately skewered here, for Britain has a long history of introducing otherworldly elements, paranoia, and the unknown into mundane surroundings, from ‘The War of the Worlds’ to the works of John Wyndham to Quatermass. All The World’s End essentially boils down to is a rather middling episode of Doctor Who with extra drinking and swearing.
All three of the core team have said they hope to work together again, and maybe it will be more favourable next time if they chuck out the homages and focus on just telling a good tale, with good gags and good characters. Though perhaps given the slow and unfunny start here, they’re ultimately better off having genre conventions upon which to hang everything else on.
The World’s End is a ‘fair enough’ fitting end to the ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy and still worth seeing, but unlike the Cornettos that gave them their three movie in-joke connecting tissue, it’s like getting to the bottom of the cone and the chocolatey reward’s gone.