The World’s End
(SPOILERS) It’s perhaps inevitable that The World’s End should be the Pegg/Wright/Frost film where the hype finally catches up with them. They’ve been in the vanguard of can-do nerds for a long while based purely on past glories; the third part in their Cornetto trilogy has assumed a status of legendary anticipation. And, for many, they can do no wrong (hey, as a collective they had a three-for-three success so I was buying into it). The problem with that assumed weight is that they’ve decided they’re not just funny guys but artists too, so they need to make sure there’s a commentary in their movie; it’s about something. It can’t just be a witty genre riff with lip service to an emotional undertow. So they find themselves testing their mettle like never before, and the result is a bit of a mess.
The ever-expanding status of Wright and Pegg as uber-geeks du jour in the States has embedded them in fan consciousness as a duo that can do no wrong. Their every pronouncement is nursed as the most sage erudition ever on any given (geek) subject and they will concordantly be forgiven the gravest of sins as they’re “one of us” (Scotty, anyone?) The cult appeal of Shaun of the Dead across the Pond ignited a retrospective slavering over Spaced, which felt not a little tiresome for anyone who’d caught it at entrance level more than five years earlier. Then Hot Fuzz came out, just as Pegg (in particular) was on the receiving end of fledgling endorsement from the geek empire builders (Tarantino, Abrams, Spielberg). In the six years since, there’s been Star Trek and Wright’s confirmation as cult miracle-doer in the everybody-loves-it flop Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Frost had to make do with ever-so-slightly-grumbling third man status, lacking the creative flair of Wright or the easy-going charisma of Pegg. Still, he co-wrote Paul with Pegg; a crude, fellatory love letter to the country that has taken them to its bosom. The irony is that Paul, as lacking in flair and wit as it is, may be a more satisfying movie than The World’s End. At least it knows what it wants to be, and firmly rests on those self-congratulatory laurels. Wright’s new film strains to make a serious point so ends up looking faintly ridiculous, guilty of the same lack of self-awareness that the trio used to mock.
And surely going to the sci-fi well twice in a row was a sign of creative drought? It doesn’t matter that E.T. isn’t Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or that the violence inflicted on not-humans recalls Shaun. There’s a sense that they aren’t really trying very hard. There’s nothing wrong in writing what you know (ask Woody Allen), but there’s a danger that eventually it may expose you as having very little to say. Probably Wright and Pegg are aware of this; they’re nothing if not savvy. So World’s End is really about recognising (or not) that you’re growing up.
We’ve heard their sound bites about 40 being the new 30, and commenting on man-child comedies that fail to make their hero pay a price. But I don’t really think that Gary King (Pegg) is such a break from that. The norm is that the protagonist will eventually learn that he needs to take responsibility, and reflect the felicitations of his long-suffering (would-be) amour. He might even endorse the idea of starting a family. Wright and Pegg make King an out-and-out jerk; he’s not a faintly loveable schlub, even though he comes out with many of Pegg’s usual one-liners. He’s a tiresome twat. One might argue that’s a bold move, and it can work if you’re a charm machine beneath it all (Nicholson in As Good As It Gets) who just needs a bit of poking to show his good side beneath it all. Even bolder, one might argue, to include no such journey. But where does that leave the audience?
Again, Pegg and Wright must be aware of this to some extent, which is why they turn Gary into a hero despite himself. Not an anti-hero of the Bruce Campbell Evil Dead variety; Gary has neither the self-awareness nor the screwball charm of Ash (though he’s clearly the goal, as the epilogue shows). It doesn’t compute; if it all ended in self-sacrifice it might give him validation. Instead, the fantasy apocalypse of Garyreliving his youth nurses two opposing impulses. Look, say Pegg and Wright, Gary can’t grow up; how sad is that? But visually they are saying the opposite. Look, Gary can’t grow up; how cool is that? I don’t think this is born out of great cleverness on their part, it’s because they fumble the ball they’re attempting to run with. It was too much for them, and they retreat to a safer ground.
It's no doubt an honourable intention to mix things up by having Pegg play the dickhead and Frost the straight man, but in Shaun of the Dead Frost wasn't playing the central character. You could get away with him being an obnoxious arsehole as comic relief. In theory, the first half of the film should have been the best part as it's all relationship comedy, but Pegg is such an (intentional) annoyance to be around that much of it falls flat. I could feel the scenes stretch out deathlessly. We, the audience, are put in the position of his reluctant childhood friends, wondering why on earth we’ve spent good money to sit in his company. It’s not that this kind of ingratiating comedy can’t work, but if all the character amounts to is a cock (as Frost’s Andrew Knightley puts it) it’s difficult to cast about for a rich vein of comedy. If you’re Mike Leigh, aiming for a bittersweet™ affair, that’s one thing, but maudlin character dissection isn’t this duo’s forte. The movie finds itself caught between two stools; it isn’t clever or insightful enough to be affecting (Gary is a much less intricate character than Bradley Cooper’s in the no less fantasyland but much more charming Silver Linings Playbook) and not funny enough to really lift off.
Many of the ripostes to such naysaying will be that I don’t want Wright and Pegg to try something different, that I just want Shaun, or the Paul dynamic between Pegg and Frost, reheated again and again. But it’s not that; I want them to play to their strengths, and it’s very clear that they have a very narrow field to play in outside of the straightforward geek-matey comedy that made them such successes. Indeed, I increasingly suspect that the lack of Jessica Stevenson/Hynes in the creative mix spotlights all their shortcomings. She brought an emotional sincerity to Spaced (at its best) that is absent from everything the lads together have done, even when it’s a straightforward paean to the value of friendship.
So, when the plot switches to science fiction (at a point beginning with a replay of the “Too orangey for crows” scenario from Spaced), Gary’s aptitude for genuine heroics feels wrong. Suddenly he’s a fully equipped and capable action man. Yes, he’s a dick, but he’s a dick to get behind. Is that what Pegg and Wright are saying? Many of the "real" moments during this section just don't play because they are shoehorned in with shocking lack of finesse. Quite apart from doubt over whether Andrew has progressed to the point where he would forgive Gary, the climactic heart to heart between the two falls flat because Frost isn't nearly a good enough actor. And there’s a repetitiveness to the arguments and labouring of the sci-fi tropes (the obligatory “Are you one of them?” scene is an opportunity for comedy gold, but falls curiously flat, even aside from the need to undercut it by telling us –yet again – how fucked up Gary is). Both gags (Gary’s mum) and emotional beats are overly telegraphed (the bandages; but without provoking empathy for Gary along the way) and the fight between Gary and Andrew over the final pint is tiresome and pointless (is it supposed to be a homage to They Live!)?
If there were any real substance to the characters, or progression, there'd be no need for the sci-fi hook at all. But the result is that the mid-section, with full-on dismemberments and blue lubricant flying everywhere, is by far the most entertaining. Wright achieves a sense of breathless escalation even if there’s never the claustrophobia of Shaun. He even muddies his usual clean, precise shooting style by opting for Bourne-esque handheld camera (the stunt work, from Brad Allan, is delightfully choreographed, but you want to be able to see it clearly). Maybe he thinks he’s maturing by becoming less distinct (although you couldn’t argue that of Scott Pilgrim, a visual feast) but often Wright lacks the playfulness and wit with his visual grammar seen in earlier work. Has he cast off childish things? If so it’s a shame, as he frequently resembles one of the crowd here. Even Bill Pope’s cinematography is variable, while the climactic effects extravaganza is unnecessary and unconvincing.
Frost's at his best during the midsection, becoming a one-man war machine, and his action set pieces in particular are frenetic and invigorating. The other main players are all good fun; it’s particularly nice to see Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan in such sympathetic roles, but they’re only really filling out walking clichés (the guy who could never tell the girl he love her, the bullied boy who takes revenge – and is then punished for it, or is he?) Martin Freeman has some fun with his anal estate agent and Rosamund Pike fits in well with the lads, even if she has little to make her character distinct. There are some nice little guest spots from regulars of Pegg & co (Mark Heap, Michael Smiley) and Pierce Brosnan and David Bradley make the most of their guest spots. I was amused to see that no attempt is made to disguise the fact that Pegg’s younger counterpart is considerably taller than him.
If the Body Snatchers-on-a-pub-crawl section elicits a consistent run of chuckles and hoots, it all falls apart in the final act. The writers settle for a Douglas Adams-on-the-piss confrontation with the alien infiltrator (voiced by Bill Nighy) that only succeeds in producing a tiresomely familiar but uncouth version of the “gloriously individual thing about humans” speech we’ve heard a thousand times before (usually from Captain Kirk). It’s resonant of a bad episode of Red Dwarf (not hard to find) and has a disappointingly “That’ll do” quality.
Things get worse with an epilogue that's not only a cheap rip-off of the best of the two endings of Army of Darkness but makes Pegg’s character even less sympathetic. As noted, it could be read as an admirable break from the standard move on one level (his emotional journey is one of retardation) but it actually serves to make him reprehensible for the sake of a cool endnote. What, are he and his robot chums going to slaughter a bar full of humans and we’re supposed to think it’s great? And if we’re not, what was the point of shooting it in such an exulting fashion? In general, the epilogue fails through trying to wrap everything in a bow. It provides closure to even the “fallen heroes” in a way Steven “Everybody lives” Moffat would be proud of, but confirms how shot away any attempts at depth are (it shouldn’t need to be a conversation in a Pegg-Wright comedy, but they’re inviting the brickbats this time). That said, Freeman with half a football on his head is hilarious.
A few other aspects gave me pause. There seems to be a slightly queasy undercurrent of revelling in the excuse to beat up (blue-juiced, robot) women that reaches its peak point when the doppelganger of Andrew’s childhood lust object invites him to stick it in her and he pushes his fist through her guts. It’s a celebratory moment that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Further adding to the lack of sound judgement is Steven Price’s score, which has all the subtlety of Murray Gold Overdrive. It floods over every scene, making the meaningful exchanges unbearably cloying and false. It’s as if Pegg and Wright have been possessed by the lowest common denominator of the broadest US comedies, where every intention has to be broadcast loud and clear. Compared to the lightness of touch they started out with, it’s alarming to see them weighed down by the self-importance of assuming they are saying something profound.
If you’ve reached heady heights, it can only be all the more disappointing when you falter. It just happens to be Pegg and Wright’s turn. Nothing in The World’s End quite feels spontaneous; there’s never a sense that they really want to be telling this story. Purely conceptually, the science fiction plot never fits as seamlessly as the zombie one did in Shaun. Maybe because the alienation one is so obvious (both Pegg and Pike come out and say it) that the writers didn’t spend enough time making it stand on its own two feet. And, in terms of the lead protagonist, having everyone recognise what a tool he is only goes to underline that his antics are fairly insufferable. This may all sound churlish, as there are a lot of good laughs in the pot they’ve brewed. And it may knit together better on repeat viewing. But The World’s End takes a far distant third place in the Cornetto Trilogy.