Like The Great Gatsby, this new Edgar Wright comedy features a protagonist determined to re-create the past. Like Jay Gatsby, Gary King (Simon Pegg) is willing to move heaven and earth to bring his dream to life. They even share the same goal: Both want to win back the great love of their lives. In Gatsby’s case, it’s Daisy; with Gary, it’s his teenage self. And both cause a lot of trouble because of their quests.
Specifically, Gary wants to gather four old friends and finish a 12-pub crawl in their hometown. They were, alas, too wasted to finish it some 20 years ago.
The World’s End itself is a reunion of the trio—Wright, Pegg and actor Nick Frost—responsible for the great Shaun of the Dead and the very good Hot Fuzz. It’s still a successful combination.
A charismatic wreck, alcoholic and poor, Gary has to pull every shady trick he can think of to get his sober, middle-class ex-pals to go along with the scheme. He succeeds, however, and Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Andy (Frost) pile into his ancient car for the road trip home. When they get there, it’s decidedly different. As they down pint of beer after pint of beer, things start to get weird. They begin to wonder who has changed more—the town or themselves.
Along the way, screenwriters Wright and Pegg methodically, with nuance and care, fill in the details of the characters’ backstories. The dialogue is witty, but not just for the sake of being clever; it’s character-based, demanding (and rewarding) your attention.
And a large part of what makes the wit stand out in Wright’s pictures is the filmmaking savvy and dynamism. His camera placement (and the cutting, of course) supports the snap of the dialogue and the energy of the actors. There are scenes in his last picture, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and in The World’s End that rival the giddiest highs of classic screwball comedy. It’s meticulously planned and beautifully executed. It is also the opposite of much recent American film comedy, which tries to seem improvised even when it isn’t.
Adding to the exhilaration are the story’s wildly multiplying stakes. As the film plunges joyously into science fiction in its last third—think Invasion of the Body Snatchers—it becomes increasingly unlikely that our heroes are going to survive their pub crawl. The varied ways the characters react to this is part of the fun: One reverts to his younger, wilder self; another tells Oliver’s sister (Rosamund Pike, delightful) how he really feels; and another becomes nihilistic.
Just when you think that Wright and Pegg have written themselves into a corner, they pull off a resolution that’s cheeky, satisfying and a bit daring. (And, to finish the Gatsby analogy, also taunts the hero with the impossibility of his dream.) The ending of The World’s End may be a tad on the catastrophic side, but Wright provides enough grace notes to leave you with a smile on your face—and wondering how he, Pegg and Frost will top this one.