Did we need another film in the style of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, or as some people are calling this, the third entry in the Cornetto Trilogy? No.
Like so many films I watch that are playing a nostalgia card, recycling old ideas with new actors in a desperate attempt to sell tickets and cover multi-million dollar budgets, this film comes off as unnecessary and boring. I myself became (overly) excited at the prospect of the actors and director that made two of my favorite films once again returning to lampoon society and cinema though exposing the silliness of both with a quick, dry wit. Sadly, this film delivers hardly any laughs as a group of aging sad sacks reflect on how old they feel (or should feel in the case of Simon Pegg’s emotionally stunted manchild, Gary). It plays like City Slickers but without the fun, and cops 60% of it’s plot from Hot Tub Time Machine while somehow managing to deliver less (and sometimes lazier) jokes than even that piece of shit.
Pegg’s character somehow reunites his high school mates, including Nick Frost’s Andy who he *spoiler* left to die in a drunken car accident some sixteeen years earlier, to relive the pinnacle of his youth: a pub crawl. While the original night is talked about as epic, and is clearly supposed to be the prime motivation for Gary, I am mystified as to why anyone cares about completing this ritual some twenty years later. Gary’s former friends barely tolerate each other, let alone Gary. They have all moved on to ho hum suburban professional lives, but when they reunite all they can talk about is what a bad idea this premise is (not the best move to engage your audience). The dialogue is so boring that at one point, I expected them to have a discussion on the merits of various 401k diversification strategies. That might have been funnier than their actual interplay with Gary, which swings from enabling his debauchery to utter disgust with the pathetic state of his life.
Once the shit gets real later in the film, I expected a more congenial ensemble to emerge and for the tone to get a bit more lighthearted, but it never does. The sparse laughs that do come about from Wright’s once master comedic timing are almost immediately dispelled in short order. One of Gary’s friends who was relentlessly bullied and savagely beaten by a high school tormentor describes in heart-breaking detail his misery early in the film. When he’s finally given his chance to deliver some comeuppance to a his tormentor’s robot analogue, he is rewarded by himself being killed and replaced with a robot. There might have even been time for a, I don’t know, joke or something, but nope. He’s just killed by robots.
There is also the ever present specter of the aforementioned drunk driving accident that defines Pegg and Frost’s chemistry. I’ve read a lot of short fiction and seen a lot of films that use drunk driving to drive the plot, but it hardly ever results in anyone laughing; this is no exception. It is finally revealed just prior to the end of the film that *spoiler* Andy’s wife has left him and he is, in fact, miserable. Not to be outdone, Gary reveals that he tried to commit suicide as a final escape from his demons, and that this pathetic pub crawl was the only thing keeping him alive. The premise is almost as disconnected as another Pegg outlet, Run, Fatboy, Run, where a character foolishly fixates on some arbitrary accomplishment as the solution to all his problems.
In total, the film’s laughs were frequently tainted by questionable material: jokes about having sex in bathrooms designed for disabled bar patrons, a somewhat disturbing sequence with our sad sacks perving out on teenage schoolgirl robots, and a bit about Gary’s mother dying from cancer – Gary lies about that to get his friends to agree to the pub crawl – and then actually dying in the ensuing apocalypse. At times I wondered if this was supposed to be a comedy at all, or if I had just misread the concept of the film entirely. The sparse goofball laughs and the discussions of this as part of a comedic trilogy suggest that I probably should have been laughing much more than I actually did. I don’t want to come across as a prig or say that certain topics are taboo for comedy, but it’s hard to get in a laughing mood when cancer, suicide, drug abuse, and drunk driving accidents are the topics the characters keep returning to.
I can’t say enough about the lameness of the ending. One of the reasons SotD is so hilarious is that it puts the oafish characters into a zombie film where they are both hilariously incompetent and simultaneously self-aware. The director succeeds there by bringing the audience in on the laughs, and as a result creates a solid zombie film entry in its own right. While this film is an obvious take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and maybe The Stepford Wives, replacing complete disregard for fawning obsequiousness), I wouldn’t even say The World’s End is half as good as that film; it adds little to nothing to that genre as far as I’m concerned. The robots seem more designed as a heavy-handed metaphor to further expose Gary’s patheticness. Gary is certainly made to be a despicable character, but his redemption at the end (if one can call it that) does nothing to change his story arc: even after the apocalypse he is still an emotionally stunted manchild who has actually regressed further (if that’s possible), though at least he drinks water instead of beer and schnapps on his Mad Max style pub crawls across the scorched Earth.
After reading some comments on various reviews I noticed that there are more Easter eggs and clever bits than I noticed on first viewing, but I can’t get over some of the more depressing aspects of the film. For instance, Gary’s suicidal, coked up loser is being critiqued by adults who clearly have their own desperate problems. The bullied friend still works for his Father in their car dealership and is upbraided by him for having a personal conversation at work, his Realtor friend is detached (constantly tuned in to his Bluetooth mobile earpiece), Andy struggles with his marriage and repressed rage over his misspent youth with Gary, and Gary’s second-fiddle counterpart is divorced and compensates for his inadequacies with a fitness instructor girlfriend. When thinking of why these folks are actually on this pub crawl with Gary I’m reminded of the reprimand Shaun gets from his flatmate: “Does it make you feel better having someone around who’s even more of a loser than you?”
Even at a lean 108 minutes, I was at times wondering “how long until the Goddamn world ends already?” The final 15 minutes is regrettable in that it feels about as tacked on as it can get. I don’t really agree with any reviews that claim Wright was up to his usual standards when making this film. Partly this may be my fault, as my expectations were sky high. I left thoroughly disappointed, and I’m not sure I’ll be so eager to see Wright’s next film.
AV Club: A-