It’s been a borderline unbearable summer here in New York and I can’t be alone in anxiously anticipating the fall. Bring on new boots, comfy sweaters, pumpkin-spiced EVERYTHING, college football, and purposely going out of my way to step on that crunchy leaf. And after a maddeningly inconsistent summer at the movie theater, I’m also ready for autumn’s influx of Oscar-bait films. The World’s End is the perfect movie to shepherd us through the transition from popcorn blockbusters to more cerebral and emotional fare – a thoroughly loud, offbeat, and entertaining film with something to say.
But what else would you expect from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost in the conclusion to their celebrated Cornetto Trilogy? Unfamiliar with the series named for the Anglo ice cream novelty? I’ll explain. After falling in collaborative love on charming slacker Brit-com Spaced (all 14 episodes are on Netflix – you can knock it out in a weekend), the threesome moved on to the big screen in 2004. First up was Shaun of the Dead (so far, the only zombie movie to make me cry), followed by buddy cop homage Hot Fuzz. The traditional Cornetto line-up has Edgar and Simon writing the screenplay; Edgar directing; and Simon and Nick playing characters who are, were, or will become best buddies. Otherwise known as the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, the three films aren’t installments of the same story. Shaun, Fuzz, and The World’s End are linked by common actors, themes, recurring cameos and references, and, most importantly, by the appropriation of a genre and its tropes to explore themes like friendship, duty, and what it really means to be an adult. No, wait. Most importantly: the fence gag.
In The World’s End, Simon Pegg (Kim: “You’re going through a serious thing with him right now, aren’t you?” Me: “Yes.”) plays Gary King, who ruled his hometown as a teenager and still drives the same car, listens to the same mix tapes, wears the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt, and uses the same expressions. In a desperate bid to recapture the glory of his youth, he rounds up his estranged gang to – he expects – swagger back into town and complete the ultimate pub crawl: The Golden Mile. They last attempted it on the day they finished high school and, for Gary, life never got better than that night.
Reluctantly and motivated by a mix of pity, curiosity, and some even some grudging nostalgia of their own, Gary’s grown-up friends Steven (Paddy Constantine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Andy (Nick Frost) humor him by showing up. Gary could drink himself through Newton Haven or any other sleepy town in England alone. But the key to his whole Golden Mile plan is dragging his teenage friends to meet him back in their old lives. What’s a king without his subjects? I should also mention that the guys’ last names are, respectively: Prince, Page, Chamberlain, and Knightley. Because – didn’t you know? We’re on a medieval quest for redemption and glory.
Have you ever taken a trip back to your hometown, looked around at the new buildings and the closed up restaurants and the high school kids hanging out in the parking lots who look so much younger than you felt and thought, “Was I ever even here? Did it mean anything?” That’s how nostalgia works – people remember you, places don’t. But Gary doesn’t particularly care that his friends think he’s a right asshole, because all that will change when they roll up into pub #1 (The First Post, for those keeping score) and the whole town falls at their feet. The rest of the boys can guess that the succession of near-identical, cocky, drunken teens who came after them probably dulled everyone’s memories of Gary King and the Enablers, but they prooobbbably didn’t guess ROBOTS.
Spoilers ahead. Drink up and let’s boo boo.
Every quest needs a formidable foe, and in The World’s End, it’s the body-snatching robots that have taken over our heroes’ turf. I apologize. They would prefer not to be called the R-word. Because the R-word means “slave,” and they would like me to be clear that they are not…that.
Now we’ve got the Five Musketeers (“No one knows for sure how many there were.”) plus Oliver’s cute sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) as our only defense against an alien invasion. THIS IS THE FUN PART. The fighting style of the film has been dubbed Pub-fu, and it’s a mash-up of martial arts and WWF moves that the guys get better at the more sloshed they become. (Confirmed by Frost on the Doug Loves Movies podcast: the People’s Elbow I thought I spotted in there.) Add the creepy-funny humanoid movement of the faux-bots, Wright’s deft direction, and Nick Frost being a complete and total bad-ass, and it’s no wonder the audiences at both my screenings were cheering every time blue blood was spilled. (“We’ve got blood on our hands.” “It’s more like ink.” “We’ve got ink on our hands.”) It’s the threat that bands the friends back together, and suddenly Gary’s got the gang he’d been dreaming of for years.
We learn that Newton Haven is one of several “penetration points” where an intergalactic upgrade service called The Network will begin to carry out its improvement of the human race. The process makes the subjects more efficient and less emotional in order to be contributing and submissive members of their society. Basically? It makes them grown-ups. It’s pleasant enough if you come willingly, but we find out in the final showdown that no one in the town did. They were replaced by these grown-up versions of themselves, with the flawed and immature fuck-ups that they were hidden somewhere underneath. That’s the dirty little secret of adulthood. No one feels like a grown-up. We’re all just pretending. Peter works under the thumb of his dad. Steven dates younger women who hardly interest him to feel like a man. O-man is living the same Wall Street fantasy he did in high school. And Andy throws himself so completely into his job that he loses his family. That’s why we root for Gary, even though he’s a liar and selfish and “a bit of a cock” – at least he’s honest about this.
The Cornetto guys have said that this is the most personal film they’ve done. Take Spaced as the bookend to this movie. That series, written by Pegg and Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson), was based on their experiences as struggling 20-something artists, squatting in packed flats, playing video games all day to avoid producing work (thus, avoiding failure), and relating to life through a lens of pop culture reference. It cultivated an intense fandom, not just because it was touching and funny, but because it spoke directly to the increasing number of 20 and 30-somethings living that lifestyle. Depending on where you live, the childhood finish line keeps being moved back, so there’s no reason for a college graduate of 10 or 15 years to feel completely alone in having roommates, no savings account to speak of, and/or a sad collection of Ikea furniture. It’s also about, as Simon’s character Tim repeats over and over in the finale, how friends are the family of the 21st century. In this film, Frost and Pegg’s usual roles are flipped, with Simon playing the loser and Nick the straight man. But friendship remains a strong theme. Despite all the ways that Gary has taken Andy for granted, Andy will still follow him to the ends of the earth.
Pegg, Wright, and Frost are among the lucky ones, who were able to turn their childhood passions into grown-up careers. For the rest of us, and for Gary King, it’s a balance. I choose to live in New York City for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that I’m constantly validated by my like-minded peers, because our only responsibilities are to ourselves, to put a priority on socializing and to feel fine about spending my hard-earned money on, say seeing The World’s End twice. Freedom has its dangers, however. Without checking ourselves, we’re prone to wrecking our bodies and our bank accounts; I can’t tell you how many of my single city friends have told me that they drink more now than they did even in college.
Gary King is an alcoholic and a drug addict, and the movie rebukes us for making a hero out of him. We’re conditioned to cheer for the lead who breaks things and says funny catchphrases and gives no fucks. But the scene where Gary drinks a cafe table full of floaters outside the pub he’s been kicked out of is a lot less funny when Andy pushes up his sleeves and sees his bandaged wrists and hospital bracelet. We’re all walking a fine line: resist the transformation into soulless corporate commodity – “Starbuck-ed” like the homogenized Newton Haven pubs – while not overcompensating into self-destruction. Though, as Gary would say, it IS our “basic human right” to be fuck-ups.
Does Gary save the world? I’m not sure. It depends on which version of the world you prefer. Even fans of the movie are divided on its coda. First of all, guys: it’s in the title. Secondly, it’s rebirth, which is essentially what Gary and, less consciously, the other four Musketeers were looking for. They wanna be free. They wanna be free to do what they wanna do. They wanna get loaded and they wanna have a good time. And that’s what they’re gonna do.
Random, drunken observations:
- Spaced cameos! Fans will recognize Mark Heap (Brian) as the first barkeep to recognize the guys; Julia Deakin (Marsha) as the landlady at the B&B; and Michael Smiley (Tyres) as the Reverend Green.
- Another cameo to note is Rafe Spall, the only actor besides Simon, Nick, and Martin to appear in all three Cornetto movies, as one of Oliver’s prospective buyers.
- Like every Pegg/Wright script, this one riffs on a few running gags. My favorite is Gary constantly pulling prospective bands names like “Nutball and the Shifty Twins,” “Bermuda Rhombus and the Underwater Nazis,” and, of course, “Gary King and the Enablers” out of regular conversation.
- Another Cornetto trope: Gary’s recap of his teenage attempt at the Golden Mile predicts what will happen in the movie. Also, the names of the pubs themselves line up with what happens in them. In Shaun, Ed’s plan for him and Shaun’s day of drinking also predicts their movements during the zombie invasion. And in Fuzz, Danny peppers Nicholas with questions about which action movie staple moves he’s done in real life police work. Of course, they end up doing all of these in the final climax.
- “We have a very sophisticated code…” *knock knock knock knock* “Got any drugs?”
- Simon Pegg won’t get enough recognition for this astonishing performance outside of the audience for this movie and that makes me sad.
- Martin Freeman’s face.
- I saw the movie first in one of the marathon Trilogy screenings. Genderwise, the audience was split straight down the middle. Though the Cornettos are, character-wise, very heavy on the testosterone, they’re universally appealing and relatable. I find male friendships fascinating! Dear Hollywood: women will see movies about men, so I’m guessing that men might someday be interested in movies about women? Make some and let’s find out.
Readers, what did you think of the Cornetto finale? Is Gary a hero? Were you put off by the ending? Will someone please buy me a Gary King and the Enablers shirt? Leave it all in the comments.