With the invasion comedy “The World’s End,” star Simon Pegg and writer-director Edgar Wright create one of the funniest (and darkest) lead characters in recent memory.
Gary King is charming, he’s funny, he’s the life of the party, and absolutely the kind of person we want out of our lives in about 24 hours after meeting him. Back in high school, “The King” (Pegg) holding court with his four friends Oliver, Peter, Andy, and Steven; getting drunk, partying hard, and generally living his life like there would be no tomorrow. Flash forward 20-odd years later, Gary still lives like there’s no tomorrow–and high school was just yesterday. And in the hopes of recapturing some of his swaggering, teen glory, Gary enlists his estranged mates, the ever-closer-to-middle-age Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Andy (Nick Frost), and Steven (Paddy Cosidine) to attempt a feat they failed out so long ago: to do a twelve pint pub crawl through a dozen bars over the span of one night, with the (aptly named here) World’s End acting as their final stop.
I wrote a little about the trouble with a person like Gary, which is that they’re essentially the center of their own universe. Early in the film, Pegg and Wright deftly weave in both small hints and overt indicators that Gary has a long-running substance abuse problem which at times makes him incredibly fun to be around and is at the heart of his painfully obvious arrested development. Everything from his clothes to his points of reference are all locked in the early ’90s, and with a little liquid or chemical encouragement, he can pretend that he’s back there, on top of the world.
Of course, “The World’s End” isn’t some dour alcoholism drama where Gary and his friends head off to a tiny village to talk about their feelings: what starts off as an evening of awkward reminiscences and steadily increasing hostility turns into a full-on sprint for their lives as Gary and friends realize that they’ve wandered into the beginnings of a full-scale, mechanized alien invasion. It’s around this premise that director Edgar Wright (alongside co-writer Pegg) constructs his curiously darkest film to date, which is as much about what is means to be an adult male, as it is about aging gracefully and accepting the end of things. And at the heart of all of that is Simon Pegg’s Gary, simply the actor’s most comically and dramatically layered role to date.
The rest of the cast is very good here, too, with Frost playing against type as the story’s straight man against Gary’s joker, while Marsan, Cosidine, and Freeman all find humor in roles that have seen four lively young men softened and grayed out by the years. Smaller parts by Gary and Steven’s shared boyhood crush Sam (Rosamund Pike) and the usual round of British film and television cameos brighten up the action considerably.* The normal trajectory for this kind of film would be that by the end of the journey, they’d all learn a little something about themselves and shake free of their impending middle-age malaise, but instead, the quartet acts as a collective foil for Gary’s shenanigans and as more grounded reactions to the bizarre invasion going on around them.
It also helps that in a series of well-cut and staged fight scenes (who knew the Brits loved the body slam quite so much), we get to see a cast willing to dive headlong into some pretty visceral invader-smashing action. If you’ve seen any of Wright’s previous work, particularly “Scott Pilgrim,” you know the director likes to stage his action scenes alongside the percussive rhythm of the soundtrack, an escalating dance between the actors which inevitably ends with characters being flung, sets getting trashed, and bodies being broken. Wright ups the ante here with the fairly destructible bodies of the invaders from “The World’s End” and a seemingly endless supply to throw at our very human heroes.
But in the end, it all comes down to what it means to grow up gracefully, and “The World’s End” provides a grim assessment of what happens when our continued defiance and need to have things our own way comes into contact with the rest of the universe. At the end of Wright’s previous films in the “Cornetto Trilogy,” you come away with a vague sense of melancholy that you won’t be able to hang with those characters in those worlds any longer. In “The World’s End,” Pegg and Wright let you laugh for about two hours before simply leaving you with melancholy for the incredible Gary King.
“The World’s End” opens August 23 from Focus Features.
*By the way, if you’d like to enjoy some of the surprise cameos in the film, I’d encourage you to avoid “The World’s End” IMDB page which is kind of spoiler-y.