Saturday, August 24, 2013

All's Well That Ends Well: THE WORLD'S END

With each film, from Shaun of the Dead to Hot Fuzz to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the increasingly brilliant director Edgar Wright has pushed his zippy, energetic pop art precision further. His overt genre exercises gain their momentum and their hilarity from the way he points his camera, frames the action, and edits away, often getting big laughs with nothing more than a perfectly timed cut or a sight gag of staging. His newest film is The World’s End and it may be his best film yet, as unexpectedly moving as it is an endlessly entertaining blast of fun.

It’s immediately obvious that we’re watching a Wright film. The unchecked personality in the breakneck pace, visual flourishes, and crisply energetic montage reveal that right away. But unlike his zombie and buddy cop satires and his graphic novel adaptation, this is a film that sets out to play it straight – for a while, at least. The World’s End is an often hilarious dramedy about aging, growing into maturity, and the arrested development of hanging onto the memory of old times to the detriment of making new ones, centering on a group of teenage friends who drifted apart and are brought back together in the midst of middle age in an attempt to recapture some youthful fun.

The man who brings them together again used to be the king of their group, the guy with the fun ideas, the outsized personality that everyone followed around. When they were 18, he led them on an attempted pub-crawl through their small hometown – 12 pubs in all. Needless to say, they didn’t finish, but sure had fun anyway. Now it’s over twenty years later, and he’s starting to realize that what he thought at the time was the best night of his life actually ended up being the best night of his life. Why’d he have to peak so early? Now he’s consumed by the need to relive the night and finish the crawl, a pint at every pub, right down to the twelfth and final stop that alluded them all those years ago: The World’s End.

In the briskly expositional and very funny opening sequences of the film, this down-on-his-luck guy (Simon Pegg) whirls his way back into the lives of his buddies, now businessmen (Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine), realtors (Martin Freeman), and lawyers (Nick Frost). They don’t quite know what to make of their friend, still driving his old clunker, listening to his high school-era mix tapes, and eager to return to their hometown. “It’s so boring there,” one of them says. His response is quick on his tongue: “Yeah, because we’re not there!” Once there they find that the sleepy little town is exactly the same except very different. The film is built around the simple observation that returning to your hometown after some time away is an odd experience.

It’s not just the samey corporatized restaurant scene – “Stop Starbucksing us!” one character shouts – that seems odd. Sure, the old conspiracy theorist (David Bradley) is nursing his drink at his favorite pub and their old English teacher (Pierce Brosnan) is still hanging around. But the place seems smaller and less welcoming. Why, it’s as if no one even remembers this group of guys. They felt like they ran the place then, but not so anymore. Time moved on and moves on. Beginning their pub-crawl, the guys fall back into old patterns of patter at times, bristling at others. They’re stuck somewhere between reminiscing and forging new bonds after being apart for so long. Do they revert to the boys they were or get to know each other as the men they now are? The terrific ensemble maintains terrific chemistry, sparkling through each scene with a genuine sense of a mix of youthful camaraderie and middle-aged resignation. Pegg’s excellent performance – so squirrely and wounded – pulls them in a boyish direction. Most of the others aren’t so definitive, warm but professional, straining to put up with the man they used to call “friend.” The marvelously witty script (co-written by Wright and Pegg) bounces their personalities off the scenarios and each other in pleasing and telling patter.

These guys, as well as a welcome Rosamund Pike as an old friend who meets up with them, form a richly sympathetic and massively likable core around which just about anything could happen. Funny thing is, that’s precisely what happens. The World’s End so buoyantly and confidently skips off the tracks of its apparent genre and lands in another without missing a beat. I can’t wait to see it again, not just to get caught up in how hugely entertaining the whole thing is, but to marvel at how smoothly and seemingly effortlessly it makes its transitions. The setup is golden, and could easily have sustained a feature on its own, although it’d have been a significantly less overtly dazzling one. Where it goes from there is as wholly satisfying as it is unexpected. To that end, avoid the advertising for the film, which I was sad to discover gives up the whole premise. Not since The Truman Show has an ad campaign so thoroughly defanged a movie’s central potent surprises. If you go in knowing only that it’s a very funny character-based Edgar Wright film, you might get the mouth-agape goofy-grin reaction that I had. Better yet, you might be like the guy a few rows back from me who shouted “What!?” during one pivotal development.

What Wright and company have in store involves taking the film’s powerful subtext and exploding it outwards as stirring, exciting, wonderfully silly metaphor, as if John Carpenter directed The Big Chill as rewritten by Douglas Adams. But that’s not exactly true, is it? This is pure Wright all the way. It’s a film that descends into the kind of action-packed genre silliness so hugely entertaining and expertly choreographed that you wish more big crowd-pleasing films were so dedicated to genuine surprises, a sense of discovery, and twists that are at once unexpected and wild while still making sense in the context of richly developed characters. That sounds like an Edgar Wright film to me.

In a summer where so many movies seemed to drift towards an inevitable autopilot conclusion, it’s a relief to find a film that grows only more unpredictable and satisfying as it goes along. There’s a real sense of the joy of the movies in every frame. It’s a freewheeling film of banter and slapstick – equally giddy and skillful in execution – that never loses track of its generous and genuine heart. It’s an inventive, tricky movie, the biggest trick of which is how straightforward it all is when you think about it. The World’s End ends with an entirely unanticipated series of moments thrilling, gentle, and a little goofy, too. There’s a sense that, although these characters are no longer juvenile, it’s hardly the end of the world. 

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