We’re not too late to declare the comedy of the summer, are we? Good, because The World’s End is not only the season’s funniest movie but also its best action thriller, its best addiction drama, and its best movie about the apocalypse. The third entry in Edgar Wright’s unofficial, variously named trilogy (along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) launches the British comic genius into dizzy, vertiginous heights.
The story begins when unemployed big-city alcoholic Gary King (Simon Pegg) decides to chuck his few minutes’ worth of sobriety to re-create the happiest night of his life, when his teenage self led his pals on a never-completed 12-bar pub crawl through their rural English hometown, which was to culminate in a joint called The World’s End. Gary sets out to finish business 23 years later, guilt-tripping the aforementioned pals Andy, Steve, Oliver, and Peter (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan) — now grown into somewhat responsible adults — into returning home to drink with him. This being an Edgar Wright movie, the boys discover in mid-crawl that all the townsfolk have been killed and replaced by murderous lookalike alien robots.
Among other things, this premise sets up some of the most epic bar fights in movie history. As you’d expect from Wright, the action is tightly choreographed, making creative use of the pubs’ layouts and props. Scenes are frequently shot in long takes to show that the actors are actually doing many of the stunts instead of doubles. None of the stars are anything like an imposing physical specimen, yet they perform the martial-arts sequences more than capably. The portly Frost does the lion’s share of it, and he looks utterly convincing fending off a crowd of robot attackers with a bar stool in each hand. How many movies make the fat guy into the action hero?
That’s not all Frost gets to be, either. Learning about the robots doesn’t deter Gary one bit from his beery quest, but Andy manages after much effort to get through to his chum who remains stuck in his teenage glory years. (Gary drives the same car, wears the same clothes, and listens to the same music — the typically well-chosen soundtrack is dominated by 1990s British acts like Blur, Suede, Pulp, and Teenage Fanclub.) Frost powerfully takes over the movie’s center, especially after a late development reveals Gary to be even sadder and more desperate than he initially seems. This actor has never gotten his due because he’s always been cast as Pegg’s sidekick, but he’s magnificent here as Andy reveals the cracks in his seemingly perfect adult life.
As the surviving buddies face down the alien intelligence (voiced by Bill Nighy) responsible for the invasion, the movie becomes all these different things: a screed against small-town conformity and corporate gentrification, a discourse on the nature of free will, a meditation on getting older (Wright and his stars are all either pushing 40 or pulling it behind them), and a celebration of drunken good times laced with a recognition that they need to stop at some point. This full-fledged philosophical statement ends up scrutinizing the very meaning of life itself. It could have been titled Edgar Wright’s The Meaning of Life; it’s certainly sharper on the subject than the similarly named Monty Python movie. The scope of the film’s ideas is truly gasp-worthy.
Best of all, this thing’s just funny. As usual, Wright and his co-writer Pegg deliver background details and throwaway lines that turn out to be setups for jokes that pay off an hour later. The names of the pubs all have thematic significance, as do the characters’ last names. The actors have an easy chemistry that results in sparkling set pieces like a long drunken conversation about what to call the robots and a cracked extended riff on the Three Musketeers — Gary thinks there were five of them and that they were real. The pathetic nature of Gary’s pub crawl might be crushing in a conventional drama, but here it just contributes to the hijinks, especially when Andy gets into a kung fu fight with Gary to keep him from drinking the last beer. All this does more than make The World’s End an exhilarating laughfest. It rounds out a trio of masterpieces that stands as one of our new century’s high points in movie comedy. It’s enough to make me raise a glass. What beer goes with Cornetto ice cream?
The World’s End
Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Directed by Edgar Wright. Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Rated R.