For the first 40 minutes or so, “The World’s End,” the third collaboration between U.K. director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is a bold, funny, downright insightful film about that horror of horrors: getting old.
We open on a grim support group meeting, and the sad face of Gary King, played by Pegg (“Star Trek’s” current Scotty). The chipper Pegg has never looked quite like this, and I don’t just mean the dark hair. He looks aged, and exhausted, and maybe even a bit ill.
But Gary comes alive when describing a bender that took place two decades ago in the British town of Newhaven, in which he and his four friends almost completed an epic pub crawl – the “Golden Mile,” consisting of 12 pints in 12 pubs, ending at a bar called the World’s End.
And so does the movie. Zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” and small-town cop romp “Hot Fuzz” were the first two parts of Wright, Pegg and Frost’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (named for a U.K. ice cream that appears in all three, but also humorously referencing filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy). Both had the same gleeful mixture of dark comedy and winking satire that kicks in before “World’s” opening credits.
Childhood friends Andrew (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (“Hobbit” star Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) were part of that failed Golden Mile effort, and unlike Gary, they’ve moved on to successful careers.
Gary is not successful. So when the idea of a reunion and renewed attempt at finishing the Mile hits, it represents a chance at reclaiming the failed glory of his Sisters of Mercy T-shirt-clad youth.
His four cohorts – “just like the Five Musketeers!” – are unconvinced. As Frost’s Andrew puts it, “You remember the Friday nights; I remember the Monday mornings.”
But the allure is too great, and the friends have soon descended upon Newhaven, all to a soundtrack of early-’90s pre-Britpop classics (Primal Scream, Blur, Suede).
The first stretch of the Golden Mile is dripping with great moments, like Gary’s response to Andrew’s order of H2O, or Gary’s line about the chains that have taken over the bar scene – “part of a nationwide initiative to rob old pubs of all discernible character.”
It is all a brilliant middle finger to the phony let’s-get-the-gang-back-together frivolity found in most movies of this sort. It feels shockingly real, equal parts pathos, comedy and beer.
And then Gary uses the men’s room. And attempts to start a conversation with a surly teenager. And gets in a fist fight. And the chap’s head pops off, triggering a bum rush of all the young robot dudes.
Newhaven, you see, has been taken over by aliens who are trading out humans, “Body Snatchers”-style, for robot duplicates.
Now, this is not shocking, “spoiler alert!” news. The trailers made it clear that “The World’s End” starts as boys-gone-wild and becomes an alien invasion comedy.
But that does not make it any less of a bummer. The film was almost saying something extraordinarily wise ... and then it is not.
As disappointing as that embrace of genre tropes is following the opening, that does not make it unenjoyable. In fact, the film moves briskly and stays funny, with Pegg and Frost, especially, doing some of their finest work.
Considine, Freeman and Marsan are well-cast, and Rosamund Pike provides a real spark as Oliver’s sister.
Proceedings take another strange turn at the end, coming to a close with a bleak conclusion that felt a touch at odds with the rest of the proceedings. Let’s just say “The World’s End” is both a title and an indicator of where things are going.
So even though it is not the film it could have been, “The World’s End” is mostly a frothy good time at the movies. Wright, Pegg and Frost have found a way to end their “Cornetto Trilogy” with verve, humor, beer and aliens. I would have preferred verve, humor and beer, period.
the world’s end
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan
Director: Edgar Wright
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive rough language, including sexual references.
The Lowdown: Five friends return to their hometown for an epic pub crawl but find themselves running for their lives.