The World's End review

The third and final part of Wright and Pegg’s Blood & Ice-cream trilogy, The World’s End has a tough act following the rom/zom/com Shaun of the Dead and buddy-comedy/action/cop/folk-horror mash-up Hot Fuzz. Shaun is now an accepted classic in the extremely tricky  horror-comedy sub genre (as opposed the bulging comedy-horror sub genre), Hot Fuzz was less universally adored, but has a strong cult following who think it as good if not better.

The World’s End (for the sake of brevity, TWE from here on) presents a nostalgia for late eighties/early nineties youth culture that will make it a bittersweet viewing experience for pretty much any British male between the ages of 38 and 45 (well, possibly less so for non-whites – not a criticism as such, more a reflection of the creative team’s backgrounds). Gary King (Pegg) was the Alpha Male of his high school set, the effortlessly cool class rebel with a fag behind the ear and a bag of primo weed secreted in his fashionably billowing black greatcoat. King was the sun around which a small group of friends orbited, but his BFF was Andrew (Frost) – the ultimate wing man, built like a tank and always standing at his side.

Creeping into middle age, King is unable to accept that he is no longer the coolest guy in the high school movie that is perpetually playing as his interior monologue and has turned an attempted pub crawl from the end of the friend’s school days into personal mythology. Now a shell of a man, fun distractions have long ago turned into debilitating addictions, looks have faded (an American version of this would have someone much less weathered-looking, such as John Cusack, in the role) and he is a lonely figure rocking a faded Sisters of Mercy T-shirt and an unfashionable flapping greatcoat. He’s is obsessed with the idea that life will be made tolerable again if he and his (now former) friends can just complete that pub crawl and make it to The World’s End. King lies, flatters, cajoles and manipulates until all four one-time schoolmates are standing on High Wycombe Station waiting for him to pick them up in his smoke-belching Mark II Granada – aka The Beast (another fossilised remnant of his past). In addition to Frost, Considine, Freeman and Marsan make up the band.

Of course, this being a Wright/Pegg joint, all is not as it seems. Genre elements are gradually introduced, transforming the film into something on a scale a fair bit larger then their previous collaborations. To come over somewhat academic for a minute, the chief thematic concerns of the "Cornetto" trilogy are masculinity and platonic male friendship as exemplified through the characters played by real-life homies Pegg and Frost. In Shaun, Pegg is a decent guy held back from maturity by his perpetually juvenile mate, Frost. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg is an uptight authority figure humanised by discovering the friendship of a perpetually juvenile mate, Frost.

The formula gets a shake up in TWE and, for the first time, Frost is the figure of maturity, while Pegg is the perpetually juvenile mate. Gary King is a far darker character than those Pegg played in the previous entries; there is almost a touch of Withnail in him, with his obvious substance-abuse issues, amorality and overbearing vanity. He is, in all honesty, a right dick – and, crucially, one who has been rejected, not embraced, by his friends. Beneath the jokes, there is desperation to the character than makes him the most interesting protagonist in the series.

TWE has the most accomplished cast of the entire trilogy. The previous films featured great British actors in cameo parts, but here the likes of Considine, Freeman, Marsen and Pike are central characters in the story. Cameos still feature – at the press screening, a request from Wright was read out asking us to keep schtum about any cameos. Personally, I didn’t feel the surprises were any great shakes, but I will respect the director’s wish.

In TWE, Pegg delivers what is inarguably his best performance to date. His comic timing is as good as ever – a bar-room brawl where he attains a kind of Zen master grace simply through being absolutely slaughtered is a master class in physical comedy worthy of Bruce Campbell – but he really stretches his acting muscles here. Gary King is a comic grotesque, but like all the best hilarious monsters, deep psychological anguish is to me found just behind his eyes. Frost is also great, but he’s shown his acting skills off to better effect than Pegg outside of their work together.

It’s not all good; there are significant issues that must be addressed. This is by far the messiest and least well-structured of the trilogy. The genre hook is also rather vague and frankly the least interesting bit of the film. We are all tiptoeing around this for fear of spoilers, but frankly it’s actually a bit shit.

Directed with typical fizz and pop by Wright, TWE is a great-looking movie that frankly shows up as amateurish the efforts of some of his contemporaries. However, in returning to work with Pegg, it feels as if Wright is treading water as a director after the sensational Scott Pilgrim. In repeating some of the visual language of the TV series Spaced (look at how he shows people getting into and out of cars, for example), Wright risks looking like he is going through the motions a little.

The film’s ending is also a really damp squib – Pegg and Wright hit the natural emotional and character peak before the climax. There is also a final coda that felt preachy and self righteous, especially following the massive amount of product placement for a ghastly Australian lager.

This has become a personal obsession of late, but like Pacific Rim (whose director, Guillermo Del Toro, receives a thank-you in the credits), TWE dismally fails the Bechtel Test. Pike is the only significant female character; she gets some very funny lines, but is far from a focal point (to be fair, Marsen and Freeman’s characters are equally thin, with only Considine really making a mark). In a lot of ways TWE feels more like Spaced (which also featured Frost) than Shaun or Hot Fuzz, but despite a cameo in Shaun, Spaced co-star and co-creator Jessica Hynes has not been part of the Cornetto films – and her presence is particularly missed in TWE, which is extremely boyish.

These are real problems, but TWE shows one of the difficulties in reviewing comedy. What should be reflected in a final opinion? The quality of the narrative structure? The complexity of the character arcs? The cohesiveness of the thematic subtext? Or should it be the fact that it is bloody hilarious?

I favour the later approach and during TWE I laughed frequently, and hard. The film contains some inspired pub-based comedy (including a line related to precipitation that caused me to miss the next three gags for laughing). Even when the ending is being weak and dramatically unsatisfying, it was still kicking the hell out of my funny bone.

TWE wraps its jokes around razor blades – this is nowhere more evident than in a subplot concerning Marsen’s character meeting the former bully who made his life hell in school. This has an grim and authentic emotional payoff that is barely sweetened by an oafish joke from Pegg. Later, the revelation of how Pegg's and Frost’s characters became estranged is worked into a sustained and exceptionally funny scene (which is built around a very clever film homage I trust you to get on your own) that doesn’t lessen its punch.

Of course, it is a truism to say that comedy is subjective, but if you laughed at Spaced, Shaun and/or Hot Fuzz (any combination really) I virtually guarantee you will laugh at this. The World’s End may be a very long way from being 2013’s best film, but it may be its funniest.

The World’s End at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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