Does The World’s End Mark a New Beginning for Edgar Wright?

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I never entirely boarded the Edgar Wright train. That’s not a knock on him — his talent speaks for itself. He stuffs his movies to the brim with references, allusions, setups and payoffs, and even the thinnest story he’s told marvels on one level or another.

Still, the voice in the back of my head has always whispered warnings that his movies a little TOO style-conscious, a little too enamored with the presentation to fully develop the underlying meaning and story. In the end, his movies just left me a little bit cold.

Well, I finally got around to watching The World’s End — out now on Blu-Ray! — and I absolutely loved it.

As I’ve said, Wright’s skills shouldn’t be sneezed at. If an “artist” is responsibility for having and articulating a point of view, this guy more than qualifies for the title. Though I’m sure his dense, hyper-kinetic filmmaking style tempts plenty of imitators, it’s simply impossible for anybody but Edgar Wright to make an Edgar Wright movie.

However, up to this point in his career, the most memorable, interesting aspects of Wright’s movies have been the more… um, surface-level stuff. The litany of references in Shaun of the Dead. The action movie parodies in Hot Fuzz. The insane, kinetic fight sequences in Scott Pilgrim. Though each of these movies has a pretty well-realized story, Wright’s particular brand of clever energy was always what stood out.

The World’s End bucks that trend. Though it has gags and action and cleverness to spare, none of these are the main point of the flick. Rather, most fascinating part of The World’s End takes the form of its protagonist Gary King.

Usually, Wright crafts stories about protagonists who have to simply grow up. While they technically live in the “real world,” they don’t seem to have a firm grasp on it. The inevitable outbreak of fantastic threats — zombies, cults, evil exes — sends them on a journey through which they finally get the tools needed to confront their own reality. While Gary King follows a similar path in The World’s End, it plays out somewhat differently this time.

Though characters like Scott or Shaun are flawed, King might be the first of Wright’s protagonists who truly digs his own grave. He’s a fantastic character, played to (or maybe beyond) the brink of unlikeability by Simon Pegg in what is surely his best performance to date. As King, Pegg embodies equal parts arrogance and pain in a man whose entire persona is a levee about to break under the psychological strain of being, not to mince words, a “f**k-up.” And it’s this “f**k-up” nature of his that causes the lion’s share of the problems in the film. In a way, he’s almost the antagonist of the story.

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the movie’s plot hangs on a series of beatdowns exacted on a community of blue-blooded robots (or “blanks”), but it’s not quite the same thing as, say, the community in Hot Fuzz. The Network is just a context; something to bounce the conflict off. The final fight in The World’s End is a simple, emotional fistfight between Gary and his best friend.

While Scott Pilgrim learns self-respect (um, somehow) as he draws a sword to fight an evil ex, Gary King learns it when he simply admits, in front of everybody, that he’s a total screwup. This is truly character-driven stuff, and it has much more bite than any of Wright’s previous movies.

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No… I said “bite,” not “bites.” 

In a lot of ways, The World’s End reminds me of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. That movie, too, took a dramatic turn away from earlier, more straighforwardly comedic films. Like Funny People, The World’s End has all the trappings of a comedy (or in this case, an action-comedy), but ultimately winds up a strong character study.

There’s laughs, sure; loads of ’em. But even most casual viewers noticed the sinister edge on them. The comedy of The World’s End serves as something of a tonal counterpoint to the harsh reality of King’s addiction. You could think of it as Wright lulling us into a false sense of lightheartedness before hitting us where it hurts, or you could simply view it as the spoonful of sugar. Either way, it’s effective.

For this viewer, The World’s End is the first Edgar Wright flick where the director’s skill set is fully brought to bear on its characters and story, rather than snagging on the jokes and plot.

To be fair, lacing comedy with drama isn’t a new trick. Shaun of the Dead uses this tactic brilliantly towards the end of its tale. The sudden gravitas in The Winchester brings a surprising amount of weight to what initially appeared to be little more than clever satire. But where Shaun of the Dead catches us off guard, The World’s End shows its dark side from the very opening scene.

Just think of the way Nick Frost’s character is brought into the fold… with lies. The way all the “stuck in the past” gags mask the way King has nothing of value in his present life. Like the main character himself, the jokes and gags are merely the shell around a sad, real and deeply human story.

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Wright and his team have found truths about humanity before, no question about it. But for this viewer at least, The World’s End is the first time they’ve truly made that the reason for coming. It’s the end of the Cornetto trilogy and the end of the world, but hopefully they’ll make like Gary King and move on better than ever. I didn’t make the effort for this movie, but you can bet I’ll be there opening weekend for the next one.

  • Seen This is the End yet? Cera gets his and then some.