My favorite thing about the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg comedies — “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and now “The World’s End” — is how carefully constructed they are. Throwaway lines are in short supply; filler dialogue is almost non-existent. Everything is there to move the story forward, to set up something for later, or to call back to something from earlier. Screenplays this efficient and functional are rare. Screenplays this efficient, functional, and hilarious are another matter entirely. Who puts that kind of work into a comedy? Wright and Pegg, that’s who.
“The World’s End,” once again written by the two of them and directed by Wright, has the easygoing Pegg playing his most abrasive character yet, a 40-ish layabout named Gary King who peaked in high school and has clung to those memories ever since. He drives the same car, listens to the same music, and has the same maturity level as he did in 1990, on that fateful night when he and his four best mates attempted a legendary pub crawl in their small English town. Now, for reasons not explained till later, Gary is eager — insistent, even — to reunite the five and try it again. One night, twelve pubs, a pint of beer in each.
Gary’s friends have all grown up and moved on, of course, and they now regard him with some measure of pity. Nonetheless, swayed by his tales of recent personal woes, they hop in the car and head out to their old hometown: Pete (Eddie Marsan), an auto dealer; Steven (Paddy Considine), a contractor; Oliver (Martin Freeman), a realtor; and Andy (Nick Frost), a lawyer and once Gary’s very closest friend. They’ve hardly spoken since a certain incident sometime in the ’90s. In fact, the other three are surprised that Andy is coming along at all. Whatever happened, it was serious.
To their disappointment, the five men find that their hometown has changed considerably since they last visited. Underscored is one of the bittersweet ironies of life: staying the same forever is great when it’s the town you grew up in, pathetic when it’s a friend you grew up with. The pubs aren’t as quaint as they used to be. Something’s different about the people, too, in a way that starts as a metaphor, becomes bizarrely, ingeniously literal, and lets the movie turn into an action comedy. The World’s End is the name of the 12th pub on the list, but it will not surprise you to learn it has more than one meaning.
Lest we forget, Wright (who also made “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is something of a master at orchestrating comic fight scenes and other physical movement that’s fluid, funny, and easy to follow. I’m not the first person to point this out, but who’d have thought the best fight sequence of the summer would be in a comedy about a pub crawl? The less action-heavy scenes are crackling, too, with a sharp cast (Rosamund Pike joins the boys’ club as Oliver’s sister and Gary’s one-time love interest) chewing on clever punchlines, zingers, and wordplay.
There is also, somewhat surprisingly, an undercurrent of melancholy as the major themes — moving on, finding closure, remembering the good parts of the past and letting go of the rest — play out in the lives of Gary and his friends while they try to survive in a town that’s rapidly turning into a weird sci-fi nightmare. “The World’s End” isn’t quite as funny as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” but it’s rich and complex in ways those films didn’t even attempt. There are layers upon layers here, all guaranteed to make you laugh and maybe even make you feel a feeling.
B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; )