by Paul Deines
Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy is without a doubt my favorite film series of the millennium. For those unaware, the trilogy (named for a British ice-cream snack – not unlike the Drumstick – that appears in each film) is a series of three comedies directed by Wright and starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and a repertory of British character actors. Each is a pastiche of some mass-market genre, set against the wonderfully-wrought malaise of modern Britain. The first two entries were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Last month, the final film The World’s End opened in theaters.
The trilogy has no recurring characters, and events from one film are not referenced in another. (Chief Inspector Nick Angel does not mention any zombie attacks from his old London beat). What recurs are themes: extended adolescence, prickly male friendship, and the purifying – indeed lifesaving – value of American pop culture.
And these films are uniformly wondrous. To see them is to fall in love. In part, this is because the films waste nothing. Any joke from the first half will be called bag in the second half with perfect symmetry. Every supporting player has a payoff scene before the end. And Wright is a virtuoso director with a genuine respect for the genres he’s parodying. (Consequently, he’s been conscripted into the Marvel universe to direct Antman.)
The World’s End follows five estranged school friends who reunite for one night in their hometown to complete an epic pub crawl – 12 pints at 12 establishments culminating in the final titular tavern – they failed years earlier. The cloying, conniving pied-piper leading them is burnout man-child Gary King (Pegg). His erstwhile best mate is the tee-totaling family man Andy (Frost), who tags along mainly to carp. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan round out the quintet.
The first hour of The World’s End is a portrait of corrosive nostalgia, as King pathetically goads on his dubious chums and an arch soundtrack of 90s Britpop bumps. There’s a great running joke in which all the pubs, long since bought up by conglomerates, now have all the same interior décor. It’s like we’re watching a Mike Leigh film with punch lines.
Until the twist. The trailer has done a fair job of spoiling it, but I’ll not reveal the secret of this crew’s hometown. Suffice to say the tone shifts in to kinetic action and the second-half action sequences are the best I’ve seen all year. Cogent, balletic, infused with character idiosyncrasies, they put something like Iron Man 3 to shame.
The World’s End does not have the same light touch as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, though. In part this is because it address darker subjects – substance addiction, in particular – but it’s also because the universe is not as well drawn. You love every single character in the first two entries. In this one, everyone besides Pegg and Frost regresses into the scenery.
Though the film’s climax is fantastic – a mix of catharsis emotional release and rhetorical gymnastics – it’s followed by a denouement that is wretched. It attempts to loop in a second popular genre convention but mostly offers up glimpses into the fates of many characters we weren’t invested in to begin with.
What The World’s End does magnificently is offer a stirring showcase for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Both were funny in the past, but this script offers us something new from them. Frost is intimidating this time around, using his child’s face and large frame to animate a broken man who gave up too much to have a good time in his youth. Pegg, meanwhile, shines as a shyster showman trying desperately to sell a good time he himself is not having.
The poignancy of these performances, the bleakness of the material, and the fact that this is, alas, the final Cornetto, left me bit sad. Still, Wright’s crew has given us the funniest comedy and the most accomplished actioner of 2013.