Yes, THE WORLD'S END—the latest work from co-writers Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who also stars)—is a celebration of the debauchery of youth, with beer being the ever-present fuel. The backdrop for this film is a 12-pub crawl through the hometown of five old school friends, who are now grown up more than 20 years later and have adult problems and hang-ups to deal with. The movie is about many things, and one of them is the sad attempt to recapture youthful glory.
There's a moment late in the film where Andy Knightley (Nick Frost, the third constant in the loosely linked trilogy that also includes SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) says to self-appointed ringleader Gary King (Pegg), "Why is this so important to you?" to which Gary says, "It's all I've got." I can't think of a single moment in any of these three films that felt more like a punch to the gut than that one; it's the cry of a desperate man who literally hasn't had a better moment in life since school and that epic (and failed, I might add) pub crawl. And he's determined this time around that nothing will stop them from reaching the 12th pub, appropriately named the World's End—not even alien robot invaders.
THE WORLD'S END is as funny as anything these three sharp, intelligent, goofy gentlemen have come up with in the last 10 years (or even before that on their TV series "Spaced"), but there's an extra element added to the mix that makes this work stand out as something a little more. Call it maturity or lives broadened since they last worked together, but there's a subtle, underlying air of melancholy weaved into the revelry and drinking. Wright, Pegg and Frost have all gone on to success beyond the comfort zone of writing and working with each other. And certainly bringing it all back to where it started is cause for celebration, but they are also wise enough to know that a new film can't rely on the popularity of the first two, and they have succeeded in making a reunion feel both fresh and familiar, without forgetting that going home again after so long can be a dangerous, maddening thing.
When Gary seeks out and reunites his old mates—the five musketeers, as they called themselves—it's a tough battle. The other men in the group are Oliver (Martin Freeman, also a vet off all three films), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan). At every step of the way on their hometown journey, they believe this is a huge mistake, but when Gary pulls up in the same car he drove in school (complete with the exact same mix tape in the tape deck), the old youthful feelings begin to creep in. Things get even better when Oliver's sister, Sam (who Gary had a one-off with in the men's room when they were kids, and played by Rosamund Pike), shows up to see her brother. The place looks strangely the same, right down to some of the townsfolk, a fact that is both comforting and unnerving to those less drunk in the group.
I'll admit, it gave me great joy to see Pegg take on the role of the deviant, badly behaving manchild in this film, while Frost is the responsible, teetotaler (for a while, at least) who has more than a few reasons for wanting to go on this trip, despite his reluctance to drink. It's also great to see Frost pull out all the stops on the action front as well. He gets to unleash his pent-up aggression on some blue-blooded robots that threaten to derail their evening plans, with a combination of old-school wrestling moves and low-grade kung fu. If any of the regulars delivers the biggest surprises, it's Frost.
I don't want to say too much about the science-fiction aspects of THE WORLD'S END, although many of you have probably heard a great deal about it already. The alien robots are not overly aggressive at first, and it becomes clear that they are mostly responding to the panic-stricken musketeers. Understandably so, the gang doesn't like the idea of most members of their town being replaced by action-figure-ish versions of people they knew, looking as they did in 1990. The aliens are smart enough to know that by appealing to the boys' already inflamed sense of nostalgia, they are more likely to submit peacefully.
But underneath the sustained and increasing amount of drinking, fight sequences and silliness runs a river of sadness. Each member of the group comes to realize that looking back can be dangerous because it can make your current life look sad and lonely, and the idea that you may have peaked at 18 or 19 makes one feel rather pathetic. But THE WORLD'S END is also a call for maturity without losing your dreams and youthful streak. These five men should have remained friends, but rather than encourage each other acting like teenagers for the rest of their days, they might have lifted each other up and on to better things and healthier relationships.
If you're cruising around 35 to 45, there are parts in this movie that are simply going to hit you hard over the head and heart, whether it be the supremely wonderful soundtrack selections or the themes of growing older in a world where staying younger is as much a benefit as it is a detriment. As much as I hope Wright, Pegg and Frost continue to collaborate down the road, THE WORLD'S END closes a chapter in their working relationship, while leaving the door open for more thoughtful work (together and separately) down the road. I can't wait to see what they come up with next. Cheers!