The old gang of mine meets the Stepford wives

The World’s End’: 40-something reunion

4 minute read
Bar-hopping was a thrill, when you were 18.
Bar-hopping was a thrill, when you were 18.
One of the great difficulties of growing older is maintaining the companionships of your youth. Schedules start to get crowded with early mornings, late-night deadlines, romantic entanglements and, eventually perhaps, tiny high-maintenance humans.

How will your friendships adapt when your decisions must move beyond what beer to overindulge in on a Wednesday night? What if your best pal's schedule conflicts diametrically with your own? What if said pal doesn't have one at all?

The latest collaboration from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost— whose previous outings include Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz— deals with these issues. But instead of addressing the slow growing apart or the struggle to maintain connection, it cuts to the point where the rot has already eaten through the bond. The World's End focuses on a group of five ex-friends who were tight as teens but now, in their early 40s, have thoroughly hived off from one another.

Pub crawl revisited

The group's self-described leader, Gary King (Simon Pegg), is also the most evidently self-destructive. Now that his teenage years, his 20s and his 30s are behind him, his ability to put away 12 beers isn't as impressive as it once was. Gary is intent on reliving his glory days, and so he wheedles, cajoles and harasses his old posse back together to complete "The Golden Mile," the 12-pub circuit of their hometown that they last attempted in 1990. (The World's End is the name of the final pub on their trek.)

Part of this comedy's enormous appeal is that it doesn't shrink away from the human concerns at the story's heart, even in the face of more pressing concerns.

The more immediately pressing concern isn't simply the self-obsessed Gary, who seems willing to do anything to keep his friends there to add the proper backdrop to his slide into oblivion. The real crisis is that their hometown, the grimly titled Newton Haven, has been taken over by a malignant force, which has transformed the town's denizens into replicants out of Blade Runner by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

All-consuming alcoholism

The science fiction elements of The World's End are great fun, and the fight scenes are hilariously choreographed. Inexplicably, the alien menace's foot soldiers are barely capable of holding their own against our increasingly drunken protagonists.

But it's the tense ex-friendships that make the movie interesting, although these themes are tested more by the increasingly destructive depths of Gary's alcoholism than by the alien invaders. The apocalyptic adventuring brings the friends together, as robot/alien invasions tend to do.

But these friendships died for a good reason: Gary's alcoholism is so all-consuming, so totalizing that it's harder to believe his ex-friends would willingly go out drinking with him than it is to accept Stepford-style robots with blue ichor coursing through their veins.

Same clothes, same car

In the end, Gary's addiction trumps the more interesting story of friends growing apart as they grow older. His excesses are too stunningly profound to be relatable. "How can you tell if you're drunk if you're never sober?" Gary is asked by his former best friend Andy (a stellar performance by Frost), who gave up partying after suffering a horrible accident.

The tension would have been much greater if Gary's boozing were a shade subtler. Many of us have friends who destroy relationships by drinking too much or refusing to grow up. (Gary sports the exact same clothing and car he had as an 18-year-old.) Fewer people have known a full-blown addict like Gary, and fewer still would let him back into their lives, bottle still clutched in hand.

But subtle nuance isn't the point of The World's End. Refreshingly (and terrifyingly), it declines to offer easy answers about friendships grown stale. Gary may be a miserable wreck, but his friends aren't particularly happy in their upper-middle class lives either. Even a cathartic robot apocalypse can't reunite these men, because they've chosen fundamentally different paths. The World's End doesn't try to paper over the sad fact that, sometimes, you can't remake what was.

What, When, Where

The World’s End. A film directed by Edgar Wright. For Philadelphia area show times, click here.

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