Thursday, 25 July 2013

Last Orders - The World's End Review

So the end is nigh, it seems, for Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's affectionate, gently satirical brand of genre-mashing comedy. Sadly, however, this particular apocalypse is more TS Eliot than Roland Emmerich, going out with a whimper instead of a bang.

The World's End, being billed as the third and last in the duo's retrospectively-created 'Three Flavours Cornetto' trilogy, once again employs American pop-art conventions to offset and colour its quintessentially British style of lightly mocking, bathetic comedy. This time we follow early forties burnout, Gary King (Pegg), as he rounds up his similarly aged mates from sixth form, all of whom are, to say the least, unimpressed by his reappearance, and emotionally blackmails them into recreating the legendary (at least in King's mind) pub crawl they once attempted around their home town. Unluckily for them, things quickly go all Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as King and cohorts discover that their childhood stomping ground has been overtaken by an invading alien force.

A local population turned into dead-eyed drones? A foolhardy quest for an alehouse? I'm surely not alone in thinking that this is all very reminiscent of the creative team's first feature, Shaun of the Dead? And this is precisely the problem with The World's End: just as the gang quickly realise that every pub in town has been assimilated and homogenised by a commercial chain, the audience is liable to encounter a creeping and unshakeable sense of déjà vu from the opening minutes.

Much has been made of the central love-hate relationship between Pegg's idiotic man-baby (or 'maybe' as one character labels him) and Nick Frost's buttoned-down corporate lawyer, Andrew Knightley. Andrew has grown increasingly resentful of the irresponsible King, who yaps at his heels like a demanding pet, playing on his decency and pity to drag him into embarrassing or even dangerous situations. Although this friendship goes to darker places than in their first cinema pairing, it is essentially a retread of the turbulent bromance between Shaun and Ed, which is similarly forced to a head by extraordinary events outside of their control, and it has to be said that their respective roles as straight guy and buffoon in that film, here reversed, felt like the more natural and comedic fit.

And what of the rest of their cohorts? You'll notice that I haven't even named them yet, and that's not just because of my sloppy writing technique (although it could partly owe to that). Honestly, it doesn't really matter whether you ever get to know their names, seeing that they pretty much fade into the background shortly after being introduced, and are given little to do besides serving as ringside spectators at the Pegg and Frost emotional boxing match, which quickly becomes the only interesting element of the narrative. When you have performers with the dramatic chops and proven comic ability of Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman, this surely amounts to some sort of Bible of Screenwriting cardinal sin.

Not as big of a sin for a comedy, mind you, as the quite alarmingly thin spread of jokes. I kept waiting for it to start getting funny...and waiting...and waiting...and it never happened. For the most part the cinema I saw it in was deadly silent, broken by an occasional titter that often felt more obligatory than genuine. It is curiously flat, lacking both the acutely-observed characterisation of Shaun of the Dead or even the camp, enjoyable ridiculousness of Hot Fuzz. In place of comedy set-pieces there are endless and increasingly dull fight and chase scenes, to the point where one begins to suspect that the movie's extreme fast-pace is designed to trick one into not noticing that the humour content is in short supply. Even more disappointingly, it lacks the colourful cast of supporting characters on such ample display in the preceding films. To be fair, this might have something to do with the fact that the townsfolk have been replaced by soulless replicants, but then this raises the question of whether having a comedy script that requires a bunch of people behaving coldly identical is really conducive to laughs.

And that is the overwhelming impression with which I walked away from The World's End: one of squandered potential. There is obviously so much richly humorous and poignant material to be sucked from its central conceit of grown men observing the gulf between themselves and their adolescence, but instead of draining this concept to the dregs, Pegg and Wright nurse at it like a great aunt with a half-pint of shandy.

I'm sure Wright and Pegg will go on to do better work again; they're both too talented not to. And to give him credit as a visual stylist, Wright does once more demonstrate his flair for bringing dynamism, panache and Hollywood production values to his rendering of British suburbia. It's just a shame that his third attempt at filming the oft-neglected cultural wastelands of Middle England should have turned out so middle-of-the-road.