Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: "The World's End" is an Intoxicating Look at the Past, but not the Future

Simon Pegg
One of the more loathsome trends of the past few years has been the impending doom of planet Earth. While it could be seen as a chance to reflect on what makes life worth living, it does leave little inspiration for great stories. Recent examples include Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and this summer's This is the End. Both were solid tales in their own right, but leaned too heavily on the sympathetic side. While it is unfortunate that one of the most anticipated movies of the year, director Edgar Wright's The World's End, is essentially an apocalyptic tale, at least it distinguishes itself by getting plastered before going into battle.

What initially sells The World's End is that it is the finale in a trilogy of films by Wright starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost called the Cornetto Trilogy. With the first two (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) being both critically admired and beloved by a cult audience, expectations were high. Even if they have very little in common, the stylized, hilarious films turned the satire medium almost into an homage. It showed how to do zombie and action films without looking like a direct rip-off. Even if referencing Bad Boys II is critical to Hot Fuzz, it rarely could be called a parody, which makes Wright and co-writer Pegg's efforts all the more impressive.

It even seems fitting that they would tackle sci-fi in their big finale. This time it follows Gary (Pegg) and his group of friends as they tackle the Golden Mile, which features 12 pubs that they must drink at with the final one being the titular World's End. In an interesting role reversal of the other films, Frost as Andy is the responsible one and Gary is set on closure. Along with a series of robots (or "blanks" as they come to be referred) bleeding blue blood, the story quickly turns into an analysis of alcoholism, nostalgia, and just whatever is going on with those blanks.

If judging from a comical standpoint, the film is far from a letdown for the first half of the film. While Pegg seems to be at ease being sleazy and wondering why nobody from his hometown 20 years on doesn't recognize him, the humor lies heavily as a commentary on getting older and losing touch. The pubs are all still there, but they have been refurbished to meet the standards placed by their local patrons who also would fit in at a Starbucks. The genius in the story lies in Gary's desire for things to regress while having to realize that he has a serious problem with drinking. By the end, the once comical gag of drinking a pint at every pub becomes tragic and that's where the story crumbles.

While the initial idea of doing a sci-fi story about blanks seems fitting, it only feels like filler. With exception to a few fun action scenes, it become a problem in the narrative. Excusing the concept that British people that drunk could choreograph fights that well, the sci-fi is reliant on mythology reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It raises the question of where these blanks came from and why they chose to attack the town. Even if it tries to parallel Gary's regressive behavior, it is essentially disappointing as the film ends on a high concept that is too much of a tonal shift for it to effectively work. It also feels like the ending to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is either an impressive homage or coincidence.

For awhile, the film succeeds as a chance to get drinks and just talk to a group of likable characters. When they aren't concerned about the blanks or the many issues regarding responsibility, the film is pure bliss. The jokes may feel sloppier and less focused than the other two films, but their energy and timing is what makes Wright one of the most intriguing directors currently working. Martin Freeman as Oliver is easily the film's secret weapon, as he is capable of creating laughter with small tics and awkward timing. The other characters aren't slouches either, but I wish that there was more Freeman and less concern over the sci-fi mythology. 

It seems like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were beyond their mythology in a way that it doesn't distract from the story. Here, there is plenty of originality to it, but when the central concept was strong enough, why did it need to go high concept? It is a testament to the performers that there is rarely a dull moment. The banter and occasional sight gag solidify this film as enjoyable entertainment, but only when it focuses on the characters. It may be a little derivative at times, but with exception to the finale, this is a solid film. It isn't one that necessarily ends the Cornetto Trilogy on a high note, but one that would hopefully suggest that Wright's next film isn't going to be a genre-bending journey while still keeping Pegg and Frost on board.

There's so much that I wish could have been right about The World's End, but its attempt to explain the downside of nostalgia and living in the past doesn't work in the sci-fi constraints it put itself in. I am not expecting it to be high class drama, but there should be more substance. Even if this is Wright's least successful film to date, he still knows how to keep things from getting boring. There's only hope that with his ability to formulate subtext so beautifully that he hasn't lost his touch overall and that he'll come back stronger next time.

Left to right: Rosamund Pike and Martin Freeman
Despite a mixed review, I cannot call this film a complete failure nor is it totally disappointing. There's plenty to chew on, but the problems in the third act keep me from appreciating what made it initially a fun story akin to Wright's executive produced Attack the Block. It could have been a fun romp and nothing else, but sci-fi comedy is a genre that has been done to death and more effectively. Even if it never falls in on itself entirely, there's a wish that it was as aware of what it was like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz

What are its Oscar chances? While I moaned earlier this week about it deserving a moment, I sincerely withdraw my thoughts. The film is too flawed to stand a chance and with it being a British comedy about alcoholism, there's a good chance nobody will call it prestige. I mean, if John Belushi in Animal House couldn't get traction, then there's less of a chance here. While it is far sadder and more reverent in the end, the film isn't that strong and mostly serves its purpose as entertainment and little else.

There's nothing wrong with that, even if for awhile it felt like Martin Freeman would have been my consideration nominee of the group. His comedic timing is just brilliant and I love his ability to be in the background and still bring some awkward cues to the moment. While he probably has the biggest Oscars profile of the entire cast with The Hobbit films, I feel like he would stand a better chance at getting nominated as Bilbo Baggins than Oliver the alcoholic. Even then, the acting nominations in Peter Jackson films have been slim pickings so far with An Unexpected Journey having the Tolkein series' least amount of nominations to date. 

I still think that Wright is a director worth watching and while he falls into an unfortunate camp with Neill Blomkamp in terms of disappointing follow-ups this year, they both have a style that hasn't been that compromised and thankfully suggests something great for cinema's future. Even if they don't get their recognition in the future, I don't feel like either can make a flat-out terrible film because of their own hand. It would have to be some interference. Even if the gimmick of being the end of the Cornetto Trilogy doesn't do it any favors, there is a sense that in anyone else's hands, The World's End would have failed entirely. Thankfully, Wright knows his stuff.

Is The World's End a misstep in Wright's career? Can he do something other than genre films? How soon will it be until the Academy recognizes Martin Freeman's comedic gifts?

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