One of the weirder aspects of adolescence is that it’s possible to have close friends you don’t like, that you’re just thrown in with. In “The World’s End,” one of those friends comes back into the lives of his four former high school buddies two decades later, hoping to recreate the most glorious day of his youth, an all-night drinking binge. And they give in to the force of his personality and agree to join him.
In the opening sequence, we hear Gary (Simon Pegg), in voiceover, describe this great night, which took place in 1990. The goal was to drink a pint of beer in each of the 12 pubs found in the town of Newton Haven, culminating in the bar known as The World’s End, but they stopped at 10 bars and never completed the circuit. When the movie cuts to the grown-up Gary, we realize we haven’t been hearing a conventional movie voiceover, that he is telling his story at what seems to be a group therapy session – or perhaps a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
That opening sets the tone for a movie that revels in complicated double emotions and perceptions. Gary is a man who makes things happen, but he’s also pathetic. The memories of youth are beautiful, but also tawdry. There’s also a larger point the movie wants to make about people in general, that human beings are magnificent in their individuality, but also flawed and narrow.
Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay, has written himself an arresting role; and he attacks it with intensity and invention. He is antic, mercurial and relentless, constantly joking or cajoling or on the make, never letting down his guard, always pressing some advantage. Through it all, Pegg suggests that reliving this night is of enormous and desperate importance to Gary, though we never quite know why. That’s good – no need to tie a neat bow on everything. The insoluble mysteries of life usually have to do with character, and so why shouldn’t that also be the case in movies? The only real requirement is that such a character somehow feel true, and this one does.
For about an hour, “The World’s End” is the story of four settled men, in early middle-age, dutifully following their old school friend from pub to pub. Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan are all talented actors, with Frost and Freeman particularly skilled in comedy, and together the five principals create the sense of men who have known each other for many years. The banter is effortless; the comedy flows.
Then the movie takes a turn into a rather unexpected direction, one foretold in the coming attractions trailer, and one that will probably be discussed in most reviews, but I won’t do it here, because I enjoyed the surprise. To state it generally, the movie goes from a character study to something that is quite nutty, and yet it loses nothing in the transition. The characters stay vivid, the interaction essential, and the issues introduced remain on the table and continue to be developed. There’s just this whole other crazy thing going on at the same time.
The result is an original picture, not entirely successful but successful enough, and delightful in its ability to surprise viewers, juggle tones and keep every ball in the air. “The World’s End” has the aura – and this might only be an attractive illusion – of something imagined whole, in a burst of inspiration, rather than as something labored over. It’s like a screenwriter’s daydream, fleshed out and brought to life, and as such, it feels personal, like we’re seeing into someone’s mind. It just so happens that it’s a mind worth visiting.