THE WORLD'S END-- 2 STARS
Have you ever been to a movie that started out fine but then bit off more than it can chew? Have you been to a movie that just exhausted the initial charm it began with because of the desire to do too much? Sometimes an extra layer of curveballs and twists work to a movie's benefit. Take David Fincher's Fight Club. Once you grasp that Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are two sides of the same person, the whole movie changes and gets better. It's still strange and preposterous, but better and deeper with that layer than without it. Fight Club is a solid positive example, but I find that, in most cases, the extra effort to add more than is necessary ruins the initial good start more often than not. That problem seems to be happening annually when it comes to summer comedies.
Last year, when I reviewed the overblown comedy The Watch, I had that exact feeling. The room full of writers and comedians had a great idea to add a little sarcasm and circumstance to the idea of a neighborhood watch. They had a stellar trio of likable leads (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill) that anyone could watch making jokes for two hours with little need for anything else, but then bury them under a body-snatching alien invasion of dick innuendos. It went off the rails and ruined a good idea. You could almost say a little of the same with this summer's This Is the End as well, but that at least had some daring originality.
Well, this year's culprit for blowing up a good idea and a solid start is The World's End, the third entry in the cult favorite "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy that combines writer/director Edgar Wright, producer Nira Park, and buddy lead actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The previous two entries of that team were the zombie romp Shaun of the Dead and the buddy cop spoof Hot Fuzz. Both were fairly successful cult comedies that each added a little extra weirdness layer to their character yarns to varying degrees of success. For The World's End, the third time is not the charm.
Back in the early 1990's, an inseparable group of five hometown friends set out to conquer "The Golden Mile," a legendary 12-stop pub crawl through the small town of Newton Haven outside of London. Driven by their ringleader Gary King, we learn they fizzled out and never made it to the end. We fast forward to the present where they have all gone their separate ways. Four of the group have all become responsible adults and contributing members of society.
We have Peter (Eddie Marsan of War Horse and Hancock), the son of a car salesman who has become a partner in the family business. There's also Oliver (Martin Freeman of The Hobbit trilogy), a Bluetooth-clad competitive real estate suit, and Steven (In America's Paddy Considine), a successful and semi-retired business man. The man who has changed the most is Andy (Frost), the former brute of the group who has been sober 16 years now as a respectable lawyer. The man who has changed the least is ringleader Gary (Pegg), with the least being zero as he's the same trench-wearing, thrill-seeking, tail-chasing, manic abuser who's just older and worse than before.
One by one out of pity, Gary talks the old gang into getting back together in Newton Haven to conquer the pub crawl once and for all and catch up on old times. When they do, the only one invested in the nostalgia is Gary and the get-together isn't going very smoothly. The bumps in the road gets worse when Gary and the others learn that most of the town's citizens have been taken over by blue-bleeding and soul-sucking robot alien impostors. Do they get in the car and leave? Nope. They turn into expert 40-something martial artists and commence in a town-wide beatdown. Let the trainwreck begin.
The first 40 minutes of The World's End are an exceedingly cheerful bit of fun. All five charismatic actors play great foils for each other's natural comedic and quick-witted gifts. The playful banter of the first couple drinks and bars is a hoot. Simon Pegg, the bona fide star of the group as a member of the new Star Trek crew, is a riot as the motor-mouth and mistake-prone liability of the gang and has a great energy that perfectly suits Edgar Wright's quick-moving shooting style. For nearly an hour, it's a blast to watch these extremely talented guys get into their characters and have fun doing so. The laughs come very easy.
I wish they could have stuck with that tone for another hour of drunken renewed bonding, but the bright idea swerve of the alien invasion takes over and it all goes off the rails. We could have added Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan to that group, playing a sister/former love and a town school teacher, but their smaller characters are merely speed bumps to trumped-up action. The laughs deflate at a quick pace. Matching the biggest flaw of Shaun of the Dead, the added level of peril brought by the alien angle of The World's End just does too much to manufacture fake heartfelt emotion and ridiculously cheesy heroics. The zombie charm of Shaun of the Dead didn't run out of gas until the very end, but the robot alien cliches wear out their welcome in a hurry in this film. I worried going into the movie that it was going to be a British version of The Watch and I was right.
While few directors in the business shoot and chop zippy action scenes and fights cooler than Edgar Wright does, it's all too much. Don't get me wrong. Some of the thrills and spills are fun, but most are really repetitive and pointless. Call me a killjoy, but this is why I can't bow at the altar of the "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy with the other nerds and geeks. All three movies, to some extent, spontaneously combust just like this one and wildly veer off course from good character-driven beginnings and ideas to a broken carnival ride of redundancy.
I'll take Wright's jubilant Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World all day compared to any of these three with Pegg and Frost. In strengthening his geek credibility, I'd love to see what Wright and company could do with a superhero movie, as he has been circling Ant-Man to join the Avengers cinematic Marvel universe for years now. Like Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, that kind of material suits his skills. Personally, I would have had just as much fun with The World's End watching this talented bunch sort out their differences over a few pub crawl pints than needing a bunch of stuff that blows up.
LESSON #1: THE LONG CHARACTER ARC OF BEING CHILDHOOD FRIENDS-- We all gain and develop different friendships over the course of our lives, but the friends we had and keep from our childhood likely know us at our best and our worst. They were the buddies that shaped our formative years and remember all of our strengths and faults. Blending that mix of flaws and superlatives, it's a special bond that is definitely seen with our band of "Five Musketeers" as they are now catching up in adulthood. While the exterior has changed, their inside hearts are still connected.
LESSON #2: RELIVING PAST CHALLENGES OR CONQUESTS-- I think all of us have our own "Golden Mile." We all have that incomplete goal, unfulfilled dream, or unconquered quest that we left behind in our youth that fills a slot on our bucket list of regrets and "woulda-shoulda-couldas" as adults. Look at all of those AARP retirees that end up skydiving into their eighties. If you had the chance to try that challenge or conquest again, would you? Does age hold you back? Can you still hang with the stamina and vigor of your youth when motivated? You never know until you try and seek that missed opportunity. It will keep eating at you if you don't.
LESSON #3: WHEN SOMEONE IS NEVER WRONG, THEY ARE NOT ALWAYS RIGHT-- The biggest repeated knock on our stuck-in-the-past hero Gary King is that he never admits that he's wrong. He keeps a selective memory towards his role in failure and in his lapses of responsibility. That selective memory might keep him in a "too each his own" or "too err is human" territory of low stress comfort and coolness, but that doesn't mean that a guy who's never wrong is always right. It's quite the contrary. While the other four guys have faced their age and have something to live for, Gary needs to admit his mistakes, right his wrongs, and change for the better. He has to find something greater than a pub crawl from Lesson #2 to fuel his ambition.