Silver Screen: The World’s End ****
In case you’re counting, there are three comedies in 2013 about people throwing parties during the apocalypse, all with fairly generic, nearly interchangeable titles: This Is the End, It’s a Disaster, and The World’s End. Better write that down somewhere-- you can’t tell your apocalyptic party comedy without a scorecard.
For sheer laughs per minute, Seth Rogen’s This Is the End is the frontrunner, although the self-aware Hollywood sendup is mostly a grandiose take on the umpteenth configuration of the Team Apatow players. Not even Biblical Armageddon can disguise how, at a certain point, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and James Franco hanging out together again and again is more of the same, elaborate set dressing or no. (Don’t these guys have any other friends?)
It’s a Disaster, an indie production from writer/director Todd Berger, is the Little Dinner Party Apocalypse Comedy That Could. You want to like the micro-budgeted underdog the best, but it’s clunkily written, mostly dull, and features an annoying twist ending too clever for its own good.
Of the three, Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is the only one that consistently feels like a real movie, with a story and characters who aren’t shrouded in layers of irony or mere vessels for showy, misbegotten dialogue. It’s the third installment in the trilogy Wright and cowriter/star Simon Pegg have dubbed The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, following Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Both films, Shawn of the Dead especially, manage to serve as genre parodies without being too encumbered by the tropes of the pulp fiction they celebrate.
Here Pegg stars as Gary King, a onetime high-school cutup whose better days are long behind him. The best night of his life occurred twenty years prior, on the last day of school, when he and his chums undertook-- but failed to complete-- a twelve-bar pub crawl in their sleepy hometown. Two decades later Gary decides to reclaim his former glory by reuniting the lads and seeing the Golden Mile pub crawl through to the finish. Gary, clad in the same jet-black duster and matching attire he wore in his heyday, manages to round up the finicky Peter (Eddie Marsan), straightlaced Oliver (Martin Freeman), and pal and former romantic rival Steven (Paddy Considine). None of the boys can believe he convinced his former best friend Andy (Nick Frost) to join in the festivities after an incident that occurred years before, which they only refer to as “the accident.”
Wright and Pegg linger in the setup. They do a fantastic job of sketching the characters and their various interpersonal conflicts, so much so that nearly halfway through nary a single supernatural event has taken place, and that’s just fine. Undoubtedly a fine comedy could be made in which these guys drink their way through the Golden Mile, learn something about themselves, and part company in the morning. But that does not happen.
The twist-- call it the From Dusk Till Dawn moment-- comes when Gary gets into a fight in one of the pub’s bathrooms and discovers that his assailant is a robot powered by a strange, blue goo. The crew soon discovers most of the townspeople seem to be replicants of humans, all working in tandem toward some unknown purpose. One of the movie’s biggest laughs comes when Gary forms a plan to deal with them: Finish the pub crawl.
The logic is hilariously shoddy, but for various reasons our middle-aged heroes continue to barhop as the situation grows increasingly dire. As the evening progresses further into madness, it becomes clear that Gary will not stop until he reaches the twelfth pub, the World’s End. He’s never finished anything in his life, and he’s decided he can no longer abide failure-- even if he’s picked literally the most inconvenient time in the history of Earth.
To give too much away about the movie’s sci-fi plot points would ruin a fun surprise, but it’s to Wright and Pegg’s credit that ultimately the wilder aspects of the story are secondary to what we learn about the characters as a consequence. The robot invaders are all well and good, but there’s no big-effects moment as satisfying as when Frost’s diminished, sad-sack Andy finally lets loose and years of wildness and rage come spilling out. Pegg, Frost, Considine, and the rest play these smaller moments beautifully, making the movie’s truly strange conclusion both absurd and genuinely touching.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.