I feel a bit churlish about not having enjoyed Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s new movie The World’s End more. It is after all exactly as zippy and witty an effort as one would expect from the makers of the cheekily post-modern flat share sitcom Spaced and the classic zombie romcom Shaun Of The Dead and even the small-town shoot-em-up-com Hot Fuzz (although actually, I didn’t really get on all that well with that last one either, come to think of it. Maybe I need to adjust my expectations). Its central conceit of Pegg’s erstwhile coolest kid on the block rounding up his former schoolmates for another crack at a twelve stop pub crawl they failed to complete twenty-three years previously functions nicely as the plot mechanism that delivers an astute and timely satire on the increasing homogenisation of suburban British life. It features a bunch of reliably funny and likeable actors (Pegg’s onscreen collaborator in chief Nick Frost, obviously, but also Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and the much-in-demand Martin Freeman), a pithy script that often makes telling points about the dangers of not growing up versus the possibilities of mid-life crisis, a few very nicely orchestrated surprises and a whole load of punch-ups in drinking establishments. The question would seem to be: what’s not to like?
And the answer is, for me anyway, that it’s just not that funny. And I think the reasons for that are partly to do with pacing, partly to do with the thinness and generic nature of what becomes the main plot (details of which I will not go into, though that title wasn’t chosen just because it’s the name of a pub), partly to do with an excess of scenes of men, and only men, drinking (there is a token woman, played by Rosamund Pike, and she is, as is generally the case in this kind of set-up, as mature and sensible and generally well-adjusted as the male characters are not) and quite a lot to do with Pegg’s character Gary King, who is fantastically irritating and punchable, particularly in the early scenes when he’s persuading his reluctant mates to come out on the town with him. It’s really laid on with a trowel that his personal development stopped when he was about seventeen, and after twenty minutes or so of the others raising their eyebrows at each other as they gently indulge him in his outmoded catchphrases, juvenile nicknames and puerile half-remembered anecdotes I was internally screaming “OK! We get it! He’s a dick! Can we get on with it now?”
And to the film-makers’ credit, they do. Probably the best sequence in the whole film is when its abruptly revealed that Things Are Not What They Seem and the whole trajectory of the thing changes…but even after that, we’re still getting scene after scene of blokes rehashing old differences while they get gradually rat-arsed, even when insidious and mortal peril is revealed to be lying in wait literally everywhere in this seemingly bland and anonymous dormitory town. Shaun Of The Dead handled both this theme of the ordinary incrementally coming off the rails and that of the man-child stuck in a rut much, much better by letting things go awry almost imperceptibly in the background while establishing an ordinary and sympathetic man struggling to balance everyday pressures of friendship and commitment – here, we’ve just got an unrepentant tosser dropped randomly into an arbitrary apocalypse and there doesn’t seem to be too much of a reason to care that much about any of it. And, crucially, the jokes and pay-offs and call-backs in Shaun were much better – I really wouldn’t be whining so much about a sci-fi comedy not being believable if I had something to laugh at every couple of minutes.
But it’s not completely irredeemable. Edgar Wright knows how to keep things interesting visually, and there are quite a few imaginative and exciting (and probably highly expensive) setpieces and effects that play out in ways you probably wouldn’t predict. And, as I said before, the script’s pretty smart in fingering dispiriting trends in modern life even if it’s lacking in hilarity. The climax is explosive, even if it doesn’t really convince as a piece of drama, and the epilogue is intriguing, even if it seems to be more like the prologue for another, very different, sort of film. And you can bet this film’s going to be the basis for a whole bunch of drinking games as soon as it’s out on DVD.