The great British comedy troupe known collectively as Monty Python had a hilarious running gag that evoked the catchphrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” I can’t begin to do justice to its hilarity but couldn’t help thinking about it while watching another extremely funny British comedy team’s third film collaboration, “The World’s End.”
Only the phrase would have to be altered to “Nobody expects an alien invasion.” Certainly not while on a legendary pub crawl.
For that’s what happens in this genre-shifting comedy. The movie goes through a number of such shifts although all of them have this in common: They’re damn funny.
What starts out as a coming-of-age story about five men in midlife shifts to a funny-poignant tale of friendships gone wrong and old wounds reopening, then an apocalyptic sci-fi action extravaganza.
But the semi-miraculous thing about director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg’s screenplay is that the genre shifts don’t alter the focus.
For all the B-movie parodying and boozy comedy, the movie still is an old-pal reunion tale amid a scathing satire on middle-class conformity. It’s one of the must-sees in the final days of this otherwise pretty dreary summer movie season.
The bromancing characters are always played by Pegg and cohort Nick Frost along with supporting stars Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman with Eddie Marsan joining the gang for the first time.
A beginning flashback reveals that in June 1990 five high-school buddies tried but failed to do “The Golden Mile” pub crawl — a dozen pubs and untold pints — in the suburban U.K. town of Newton Haven.
Then in present day the movie finds these former mates have married, become dads and hold down jobs except for one who has never grown up. But everyone’s 19-year-old self lurks dangerously close to the surface.
The aging teenager, Gary King (Pegg), sees a desperate need to unite the pals who have drifted apart in the two decades. His greatest estrangement is from his greatest onetime pal Andy (Frost). Indeed Andy not only refuses to have anything to do with Gary, he won’t even touch a drink after their last drinking bout ended in near tragedy.
Gary tracks down divorced architect Steven (Considine), blue-toothed realtor Oliver (Freeman) and meek car salesman Peter (Marsan). All will agree to return to their hometown only if corporate lawyer Andy goes along — and he does so only through a subterfuge perpetuated by the shameless Gary.
Indeed Gary has gone from the coolest leader of the gang to its major embarrassment. For he acts as if he were still 19. More like 9 actually. The film has a bit of fun with this in the early going as well as its portrait of the changing nature of British pub culture.
The grubby pubs of the ploughman’s lunch, dart boards and pickled eggs has given way to clean though antiseptic lounges with wide-screen TVs, muted conversations, sullen publicans and glasses of red wine.
(The last time I was in London the “local” down the street served Thai food, for Pete’s sake. No, these aren’t your old dad’s pubs anymore!)
Then comes an encounter with Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) for whom Gary and Steven still yearn after all these years. Then comes an even more alarming encounter.
Like I said, nobody expects an alien invasion.
A brawl in the gents’ toilet between the guys and a band of local kids ends with the startling discovery. The kids’ appendages are easy detached and buckets of blue liquid flow from these humanoid creatures.
Believing that much of the small town is now populated by these “robots,” the lads fear they’re being spied on so their only choice is to continue the pub crawl. By now even Andy is drinking.
So the movie descends into the sci-fi-land pioneered by “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” and “The Stepford Wives.” As the movie gets more demented and FX crazy, the dynamics among the lads become even more sharply defined. They really are a bunch of kids fighting for their lives and the fate of the world.
Did I mention that the last pub on the crawl is called The World’s End?
None of his fellow players seems to mind that Pegg has given himself a scene-stealing role. However, he’s only as good as he is because everyone else plays off him so perfectly especially Frost, whose character remains fiercely judgmental of his old mate even as he fights off the alien invasion.
Amid the chaos of the final reels, d.p. Bill Pope, production designer Marcus Rowland and special effects supervisor Chris Reynolds still manage to incorporate enough visual wit that the film almost demands a second viewing just to pick up on all the gags.
But the real object of this peculiarly funny social satire is the homogenizing, corporate look of everything from the pubs to the entire British middle-class society. This gets typified in a cameo appearance by none other than Pierce Brosnan.
The film’s anti-authoritarian stance really comes home in its attitude about alcoholism. Pegg’s Gary King would be a pathetic drunk in any other movie. Here he is a hero-warrior but also, alas, a drunk. As he insists, it’s the basic right as humans to be f—ups. Better that than robots.
“The World’s End” is classic British comedy with roots running back to “The Goon Show,” Ealing Studios, “Beyond the Fringe,” “Blackadder,” and, yes, Monty Python. It’s anarchy versus conformity with conformity never standing a chance.
Opens: August 23, 2013 (Focus Features)
Production companies: A Focus Features presentation in association with Relativity Media, of a Working Title production in association with Big Talk Pictures
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: James Biddle, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Special effects supervisor: Chris Reynolds
Music: Steven Price
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Editor: Paul Machliss
R rating, 109 minutes