For the first 40 minutes or so, The World's End feels like one of the year's best films. The latest work from the British team of writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-actor Simon Pegg, who previously paired up for beloved zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and the buddy-cop spoof/reinvention Hot Fuzz, The World's End opens with a vibrant sweep of home-movie-style footage from June 1990, where a group of five late-teen boys from the small British hamlet of Newton Haven embark on "the Golden Mile" — an attempt to drink 12 pints at 12 different town pubs in one night, culminating in a final destination evocatively named The World's End.
This prologue is presented as memory, given literal voice by the now pushing-40 former ringleader, Gary (Pegg), who recounts this "journey into manhood" with lusty nostalgia. The footage is quick, witty, and energetic, and the film deftly juxtaposes the bravado of Gary's burnished memories with the more homely reality we see on the screen. But a shock cut at the end of this opening spiel reveals that Gary is telling the story to a group of bored, unimpressed fellow travelers at a rehab meeting. When one asks, perfunctorily, if the crew ever really made it to the World's End that night and Gary admits they didn't, he has to confront that what he's long considered the best night of his life was, itself, a failure. And so he gets a wild hare to reassemble his high-school-era friends to re-create the event. To "get the band back together."
Gary's old crew have all made smoother transitions into adulthood. Pete (Eddie Marsan) is married and working for his father at a high-end car dealership. Ollie (Martin Freeman) is a wheeling-and-dealing real estate agent. Pete (Paddy Considine) is an architect who has built and sold his own firm, and cashed-in in the form of a twentysomething physical trainer girlfriend. Andy (Pegg-Wright regular Nick Frost, playing wonderfully against type) is a buttoned-down barrister harboring a deep grudge against his former best friend. Meanwhile, Gary is a fading facsimile of his former self: Still wearing a black trenchcoat and a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt and still driving the same old beater — once dubbed "the beast" — that he bought off Pete as a teen.
This set-up, and its expert execution, comes on like a more generous, more felt, and more considered take on the American man-child comedy of Adam Sandler or The Hangover. But, because this is a Wright/Pegg film, The World's End isn't just a pub; it's also a literal threat. And when the film takes an inevitable turn into sci-fi territory at the midway point, its a bittersweet moment. What you get is fun, if visually repetitive, and probably more thematically purposeful than the surface suggests, but you also feel yourself waving goodbye to a potentially better film exiting down the opposite track.
The World's End
Opening Friday, August 23rd
Studio on the Square and Paradiso