In his latest genial fanboy collaboration with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg plays the kind of perpetual adolescent that comedies love: He’s a fountain of clearly horrible ideas but who can still get people to follow him. Pegg’s Gary King is a British John Belushi imp with a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and Mad Hatter grin who never outgrew high school, or at least his favorite part of it, no matter that his friends have gone off and joined the real world. Now it’s up to old drug-doing and trouble-making Gary (as he sees it) to get the band back together, middle age be damned, and finish that twelve-pub crawl they never completed that one epic night back in 1990. The film lives more in his head than anyone else’s, littering the soundtrack with the kind of post-hippie pop-dance-psychedelia (Primal Scream, Soup Dragons, Happy Mondays) that was probably wall to wall in every pub Gary entered in 1990.
For all Pegg’s happy chaotic lunacy as Gary, The World’s End doesn’t seem promising at first. There are scads of fine performers on hand, and a good jolt of energy, but the latter comes almost entirely from Pegg’s overanxious mugging. Without much preamble, Gary (first seen delightedly recounting that night of epic drunkenness in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting) explodes back into his friends’ comfortable yuppie lives and convinces each of them to follow him back to their small home town and start that pub crawl over again as an epic tribute to old times.
The four friends are played by a murderers’ row of stellar actors — Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, and Paddy Considine — but there’s initially little for them to do but look annoyed at Gary. Their unwilling reunion turns into a road trip to the town of bad memories and something of a hostage situation; Gary won’t be satisfied until everyone is having as grand a time as he insists he’s having. At that point, the team of five (plus Rosamund Pike, who pops by as the sole female and obvious voice of reason) tease out enough clashing differences to weave together a tight mesh of ensemble comedy that clicks perfectly for the film’s breezy middle third.
Wright has never lacked for casting talent or for spotting the right comic moment, that’s not what ails his film as it turns from anti-buddy comedy to a loving tribute to classically British small-village science fiction paranoia of the postwar decades. Nor is it the impending apocalyptic conspiracy that the characters slowly become aware of (the secret they uncover is the kind of thing that would have made for a decent Dr. Who episode) as they stumble blearily towards the crawl’s final pub: The World’s End.
Instead there seems to be a drifting complacency, as though the filmmakers thought that with this intrepid band drinking on into the night and reconnecting to their old blood-brother friendships even as they’re battling against the forces of evil, there’s little that could go wrong. What the film resembles more than anything is The Watch, another so-so comedy in which a bickering band of buddies must unite against a world-threatening foe. As it did in Wright’s self-satisfied cop-flick satire Hot Fuzz, the fannish devotion to genre here drags the film well on past its “drink by” date. But Pegg does an impressive Drunken Master routine during one of the later pub brawls, which should always count for something.