The World’s End (2013, Edgar Wright)
The biggest problem with Shaun of the Dead, the first film in director Edgar Wright’s widely loved Cornetto Trilogy starring Simon Pegg, was that it was in large part a parody of a film — Dawn of the Dead — that was already a satire, and its major virtues of clever characterization and good slapstick were lost under the weight of its obligations, sincere and otherwise, to the horror genre and to a curiously artificial, unconvincing pathos. It was also rather clumsily directed, unable to keep up with the charms of its talented cast, and not terribly funny, though a lot of viewers felt differently. Follow-up Hot Fuzz was a major improvement: much less affectionate and tied-down in its targeting of the American police action film, with an imaginative injection of Ealing Studios-like black comedy, and consistently amusing. Even that film went a bit too far with its doggedly faithful commitment to being a highly specific parody: like every one of the movies it’s making fun of, it’s well over half an hour too long.
Having made a studio picture in the interim, Wright’s confidence and sense of pacing have evolved dramatically since Shaun as he tackles the final film in the series, a sci-fi lampoon called The World’s End that’s not-so-secretly about alcoholism and belatedly coming of age. Shaun‘s forced concentation on friendship and family was trite compared to this film’s honest observations about how people grow and change and its poignant sense of the emptiness of nostalgia. Obviously, the film’s made by a group of men who are a decade older, so both technically and thematically it’s unquestionably superior, but it still feels far too much like ground they’ve already covered. Structurally and in terms of its biggest frustrations (it cops out on its own story, and it isn’t nearly as clever or funny as it thinks it is), it’s virtually identical to the movie that put Wright and company on the map. It’s fitfully, often distractingly funny, but it takes the same numerous dramatic shortcuts as its two predecessors. Hot Fuzz, for all its faults, remains the best of the series, and that big studio movie built on someone else’s vision (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is still for now undoubtedly Wright’s best film.
Is it simply that Wright and Pegg don’t have much unique to offer as personalities? No — it’s that they seem to have no confidence in their own material. All three films they’ve written together boast well-drawn characters (almost all male, unfortunately) and a potentially entertaining story, but systematically destroy both by introducing the outside element of the central “gimmick” of the film — and, to a lesser extent, sentimentally extracted “dramatic” elements they don’t seem to have the skill to execute. There’s no question that they are fans of genre pictures who make these movies for other fans of genre pictures, but the rest of the audience is continually frustrated when the point of a scene seems to be “it’s like that part in Alien when the android’s head is ripped off,” when just a moment earlier the relevant people had been gathered at a table discussing their lives with wit and far more gravity and intrigue than the interminable fight scenes and explosions to follow. As it so often must in modern comedies, at a designated point the fun becomes Fun — enjoy it or else.
Up to then, Pegg and Wright have crafted a hell of a great setup. In his most charismatic performance so far, Pegg appears as a snide hard-drinker named Gary who’s fallen hard since as a young man he and his friends attempted an elaborate pub crawl in their hometown that they never completed. His solution to the despair in his life twenty years on is to try and recapture that moment; he gathers the old gang together, four guys (Nick Frost, Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman) who haven’t been on regular speaking terms with Gary in some time. The idea is funny in and of itself; though in disparate areas, the four estranged pals have all ended up successful in some way or another whether their personal lifes are currently in order or not, and Gary’s constant overenthused egging on of teenage impulses to some dudes who’ve very plainly grown up is both comical and more than a little sad. Humane toward all of the characters, Pegg and Wright are wise to give them dignity. Until they start killing them off.
The first to go is Martin Freeman, fabulous as a bluetooth-wearing real estate agent whose warmth is buried under his tiresomely constant sense of obligation — he, of course, embodies Gary’s narrow view of what the adulthood he’s trying to escape really means. Freeman’s is the best performance of the film, though series regular Nick Frost is delightful as Gary’s former best friend and regular protector Andy, who was fucked over long ago by Gary and, though he’d never give voice to it without prodding, hasn’t forgiven him. If Freeman’s quickly-obliterated presence marks the reason why Wright’s sci-fi machinations ultimately are a distraction from what might have been an organically presented comedy about real people, Frost’s emphasizes the hurdles in Pegg and Wright’s screenwriting that prompts such cheap tricks to begin with. The character of Andy is established beautifully and embodied well by Frost, whose face is one of the most expressive in movies today, but his relationship to Gary is problematic. It points up the writing duo’s aversion to humorous mystery and truly bizarre, John Hughes-like attraction to cheap mawkishness: the question of what it was specifically that Gary did to Andy all those years ago is amusingly left up in the air for a time, like the Noodle Incident in Calvin and Hobbes, but eventually Wright lets us know in excruciating detail just what horrible stuff went down, the cue for one of a few painfully on-the-nose moments of unearned drama.
You can extrapolate all that: just in general, the movie establishes characters well then takes them to conclusions that are much too obvious — the sole exception being Gary, whose uncorrupted fantasy world of booze and passing out is embodied wholly convincingly by actor and film both, but even that seems backgrounded by robots and an admittedly amusing Douglas Adams-like vision of the end of the world as inflicted by an extremely annoying conversation with a nefarious computer (which is not far from the even more banal idea of reality television portending the swallowing up of the planet in The Cabin in the Woods). It could be that this lopsided final product just exemplifies the way that Wright and his partners want to make movies, and they certainly are pleasing a lot of people with them — which is understandably an end unto itself — but for our purposes here, it seems unlikely that Wright as a director and writer (with Pegg) is really following any of his deep-down storytelling instincts, at least not consistently. The things that The World’s End is advertised as being about, and its big blown-up emotional climaxes, seem shoehorned in compared to its truly telling insights, all of which appear in the first thirty to forty minutes.
The actual thesis of The World’s End owes something to Thomas Wolfe but is beautifully and honestly presented all the same. When you visit the town where you grew up if you’ve left it for some time, it really is like a different and terribly depressing world, and it’s not an unreasonable jump to feel as if it’s been taken over by dour and inexpressive robots, or maybe to wish it had been. If the film quickens the spread of the term “Starbucking” into the vernacular, it will have served as a boon to culture; that’s the word used here for homogenization of all the local pubs, but it could apply just as easily to print shops, bookstores or uptown pizzerias. Starbucking is a major reason the pub crawl scheme is now pointless. Gary’s in denial about this as he is about most things; he presses on with the crawl against indisputable evidence that no one’s having a very good time and even he isn’t getting much out of it beyond some anal ticking-the-boxes obsession. His prolonged act of self-enabling resonates for anyone who’s spent much time around an alcoholic.
The last two thirds of the film are a bit of a slog. It’s much more frequently funny than was Shaun, but the laughter in the first act, driven by dialogue and misunderstanding between the five friends, is richer than anything that comes later. The dull sci-fi stuff isn’t teribly interesting or well-executed, and while this leads to some rather balletic suspense sequences here and there, it loses sight almost entirely of all but the most rote elements of its nostalgia and maturity parable. The dialogue itself becomes incredibly trite after a time — “It’s all I’ve got!” is really something the writers allow Pegg to say when he’s questioned about why he keeps going when the town and the universe seem to be falling apart around him.
There’s also the matter of the sheer laziness of storytelling: Andy is married, wait he’s separated, wait they’re back together — all things that are explicated in dialogue scenes, about a character who’s introduced as being integral to the story. Would it not have been better to simply not bring that up if it wasn’t going to matter anyway? It seems almost indusptiable that the crude machinations of the hand of death behind all of the catastrophes that start to happen in the film are of less interest than how our characters react to them, but of course we’re treated to excessive detail and exposition. And as in nearly all films of this type that involve a city putting up its dukes against an outside force — call it “there’s something strange in the neighborhood” cinema — the reactions of people to the horror of what’s happening seem oddly serene somehow. (Attack the Block is the one modern film that gets it right as far as I know; people are actually terrified and confused but also don’t become completely different people when the danger becomes evident.)
The entire concept of a placid scene one third into the film descending unexpectedly into chaos is, of course, something originated by Psycho and The Birds, but in those films the awful madness was an obvious outgrowth of what was happening in the initially calm human story. The pub that’s the object of the crawl is indeed known as the World’s End, and robot aliens have some metaphorical kick (although the fact that they create other robot aliens out of regular people makes them a little too indistinct from zombies), but otherwise the planet becoming a barren wasteland and Pegg becoming a Marvel superhero or something (!?) don’t seem very intimately connected to the emotional content of the picture. It’s hard to wish for yet another “bro” comedy — especially because World’s End occasionally appropriates a few unsavory elements of those — but The World’s End would be more fun without its own premise. That’s an absurd sentence to write, but when you think of it: thanks to all this whiz-bang action, the camaraderie and gravity of the story gets sidelined by a one-joke conceit, the one joke already having been made by the same filmmakers nine years ago. Beating up robots is probably fun to choreograph and shoot, but most of us will remember Gary’s reckless enthusiasm and Andy grudgingly putting up with it for far longer.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think American Graffiti would’ve been improved by killer robots, though.