I didn’t catch either of them in theaters, but last summer brought two conceptually similar apocalyptic comedies, “This is the End” and “The World’s End.” The former is a nihilistic raunch-fest from the Judd Apatow crew whose highlights are the remarkable eagerness of people like Michael Cera and Channing Tatum to mock themselves for a laugh, Danny McBride taking his usual opportunistic sleazeball routine to truly disturbing extremes, and a really funny guest appearance from Emma Watson of “Harry Potter” fame. If it is still possible for anyone to be offended by wanton abuse of the Book of Revelations, “This is the End” ought to do the trick.
“The World’s End” takes a very different approach. It’s not nihilistic; it’s a surprisingly deep, perceptive, and touching comedy about men who find their adult lives disappointing, and can’t escape the horrible feeling they peaked somewhere around senior year in high school. Granted, the main character is a bit on the nihilistic side himself – he literally weaponizes stubborn contrarianism in the finale – but the movie has a lot to say about him, his best friend, and their lifelong pals. It’s working on several levels in every scene, in addition to packing in a ton of witty banter and slapstick humor.
Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost trade their typical roles here, with Pegg playing a human train wreck obsessed with completing the “Golden Mile,” an epic pub crawl in the sleepy hometown this circle of friends thought they were leaving behind forever when they graduated from school. The night they almost completed the Golden Mile was the high point of Pegg’s life; decades later, he can find no higher purpose than rounding up his long-estranged chums and downing that last pint at the final pub on the tour, The World’s End. His former best friend Frost, grown into a level-headed non-drinking corporate executive, proves the hardest sell for the planned reunion. It takes a while for the audience to learn why Frost is so bitterly angry at Pegg. It’s shattering stuff when we are finally clued in. Pegg has created a truly unique anti-hero here, a dark and twisted Peter Pan in Nineties punk-wannabe regalia brandishing ancient mix tapes and ruining the lives of everyone who did a better job of growing up than he did.
Just when the bittersweet interpersonal pathos of these friends and their complex history is firing on all cylinders, “The World’s End” takes a whiplash-inducing left turn into science fiction. It would be delightful to watch this movie in the company of someone who has no idea what it’s about. As with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ “From Dusk Till Dawn,” the abrupt shift into an entirely different genre halfway through the picture was necessarily spoiled by its advertising. (Or was it really necessary? Couldn’t the supernatural menace have been left a bit more ambiguous in the trailers, marketing guys? Wasn’t it enough to say “From the team that brought you ‘Shaun of the Dead'” and leave it at that?)
The genre shift isn’t superfluous, though. It’s presaged quite nicely by Pegg’s reflection that his high-school glory days left him feeling ready to do battle with the universe, a feeling most men can easily recall. Well, here’s your chance, tough guy. The universe has arrived in your hometown, and it’s ready to rumble.
The lads rise to the challenge – but of course they do. Doesn’t every band of young men fancy themselves epic heroes, a fellowship that might one day be called upon to save the world? There is so very much about the male transition from adolescence into adulthood, and how it can go horribly wrong, that “The World’s End” nails perfectly.
Director Edgar Wright brings a giddy enthusiasm and boundless visual creativity to the battle that ensues – basically an interplanetary bar fight running from one pub to the next, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. There are some really impressive visual effect and stunts when the action gets under way. It’s especially fun to watch the action serve its proper dramatic function, allowing the characters to express themselves through combat. When all that pent-up bitterness and regret comes boiling out of Nick Frost, he’s a weapon of mass destruction.
Pegg and Frost will never be able to apologize for the abominable “Paul,” but “The World’s End” is a step in the right direction. Rather like “This is the End,” it has a finale that runs a bit too long and talks too much, but it also has the guts to guzzle the existential brew Pegg pours for the human race, and deal with the resulting hangover. Sure, our boys get into a hell of a scrape, but you almost have to feel sorry for the other guys.