There’s a strong impulse among American moviegoers (particularly critics) to say, “Great movie; it’s a shame all the jokes were in British, I’m sure I would have really enjoyed them. Five stars.” That’s pretty much the only way I can explain the rave response to The World’s End.
The truth is, it relies on a lot of comedic tropes that ought to be getting a little old across the pond, if they aren’t already: forced misunderstandings, lofty oratory in unexpected places, pratfalls, etc.
Of course, tropes aren’t bad; but when they’re artfully done, they don’t break stride. Watching one character misunderstand another in The World’s End, it feels like the joke is being jammed in with Vaseline and a speculum. You could practically see the screenwriter agonizing over the setup. Nobody talks like that; not even the Brits.
(Admittedly, maybe I just don’t get it. But I’m not going to pretend like I get it, either.)
By turns, The World’s End is a chuckle-worthy, thought-provoking piece of sci-fi; an oddly self-serious tale of addiction and redemption; and an opportunity for charismatic actors to deliver clever lines–getting laughs for the sake of getting laughs. Nothing wrong with any of that, certainly; but the pieces don’t exactly form a whole. Like the protagonists, it doesn’t really know who it wants to be, or what it has to say.
Spoilers start here:
For the first half of the movie, we follow Gary King, a slovenly man-child of an addict, as he dreams longingly of his glory days in high school–particularly his crew’s abortive attempt to complete “The Golden Mile”, a legendary pub crawl in their hometown. (As a side note, Simon Pegg is believable as a loveable, codependent loser–I’m not sure I buy him as the charismatic ringleader of a high school clique.)
He’s obsessed with their “unfinished business” that night (which proved to be the happiest of his life); so he lies, cajoles, and manipulates his four friends to make the trip with him.
Of course, they’ve all grown up and bought in; they’ve got enriching upper-class careers, satisfying home lives, and they haven’t given up their individuality. Given the point the film will eventually make, you’d expect them to be slavish office drones, but apart from the usual domestic disappointments, they’re basically happy.
Gary is not the manic pixie dream girl sent to save them from their sorry conformity.
They’ve spent their last two decades building a life and growing as people, and he’s spent his on smack.
Once we get to know them, it’s clear that these guys are way too smart to fall for his shtick, and too decent to keep enabling him after they find out what he’s become; but the plot has to advance somehow, so they all end up back in their hometown, awkwardly swilling beer with this man whom they rightly pity and resent.
Up to this point, the moral of this film is that Gary King’s idea of freedom is really slavery. He’s so afraid of being tied down or told what to do that he’s literally wasted half his life, and everyone but him realizes it.
The World’s End: Part I is clearly aimed at Western males who refuse to let go of adolescent priorities; it tells them in no uncertain terms to grow up and get with the program. Take responsibility, rise to the challenge–learn what there is to life after high school, life beyond yourself–or you’ll end up a self-loathing, self-defeating joke like Gary.
And it’s such a powerful message that it takes an army of extraterrestrial robots to undermine it.
Cue the army of extraterrestrial robots.
It turns out, Earth is being talent-scouted by an alien race called The Network, who want to promote peace, happiness, and civilization. They’ve sent representatives to communities all over the world, promising utopia–and replacing dissenters with lifelike androids. And of course, no one, no matter how well-intentioned, will get away with that on our watch–so The World’s End: Part II is a bold flag-waving statement about individuality and “the right to be a f***-up”.
It’s a message clearly rooted in the tradition of British classical liberalism, that says, essentially, “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” That steely distrust of authority–even well-meaning paternalistic authority–is one of the worthier elements of the cultural inheritance we share with our British cousins.
But simply shooting a defiant middle finger at those who would wet-nurse us is a shallow–and, yes, adolescent–interpretation of that tradition. It misses the most important element of classical liberal thought: that liberty is inextricably connected with responsibility–to not only defend your personal freedom, but to live up to its possibilities.
Yes, you have the right to be like Gary.
You can take all this abundance and freedom, and piss it away on self-indulgence if you choose; but that doesn’t make you a hero. It makes you a coward, and an ingrate. So while it’s fun to watch Gary shake a fist at the heavens in the climax, it comes down to an argument between two really moronic worldviews, and only a fool would believe the film’s attempt to lionize Gary’s.
In the denouement, we see a long-overdue hint of character development–Gary steps up to the post-apocalyptic bar and orders water instead of beer–but at no point in the preceding hour and a half was that kind of transformation even suggested, up to and including his raging drunken showdown with the aliens.
They may as well have just said, “Oh hey, you guys remember how Gary was locked for decades in a crippling swamp of addiction and self-loathing? Well, he got better! Way to go, Gary!”
I won’t say it didn’t have its moments; there’s some clever verbal sparring, and a few good belly laughs. But ultimately, it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. It treats our hard-won culture of freedom like a trust-fund kid treats his dad’s BMW–and while that’s admittedly exciting to watch, it gets sadder the more you think about it.