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The World’s End: losing the home advantage

The final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ forgets the essence of British comedy – laughing at oneself.

India Ross

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To laugh at oneself is a British tradition. It arises from a defensive reservedness that requires us to play the fool before we are led into such bad habits as engaging emotionally with other people. It is a tradition of offhand deference which has carried us through wars and weddings, from Boris Johnson to Edmund Blackadder.

Given his track record of upholding comedic standards, it would be easy to assume that Edgar Wright could be banked upon to be a righteous dude. So it is regrettable that his much-marketed, much-anticipated and apparently failsafe The World’s End turns out to be a real swing and a miss.

Frustratingly, Wright himself provides a neat counter-example on how these kinds of movies should be executed. Let’s rewind to Shaun of the Dead, the beloved zombie comedy which in 2004 became the first instalment in the dubiously titled ‘Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy’. (It’s long story, but any associations with the Trois Couleurs trilogy are grossly misleading.)

Shaun was built, like its successors, on one joke: that the tackiest of American genre formulas – zombies, cops, aliens – can be undercut to the point of ridiculousness if the usual have-a-go heroes are swapped for feckless British barflies. It worked because the victims of the zombie onslaught, passive to the point of nonchalance, were barely distinguishable from their attackers. Simon Pegg and long-time sidekick Nick Frost were glum, unremarkable and totally convincing as half-assed avengers – one eye on the apocalypse, the other on the pub. It was a smart slice of reactive filmmaking which served ironically to make Hollywood, rather than itself, look absurd.

Nine years later, the talented Mr Wright, in returning with The World’s End, has something of an own-goal on his hands. Middle England, which often serves as a character in itself in Wright’s movies, is beleaguered once again with aliens or whatever, while Pegg – now a crazed alcoholic with a stubborn Peter Pan complex – and the usual associates are on a reunion pub crawl. Typically, this mob are in all kinds of trouble. Wright’s mistake with the film is to overplay a hand which relies on its own humility. The director has choked, forgetting himself and his home advantage. Pegg’s downbeat charm – which used to work so well – has been traded for an uncomfortable clown persona for which the actor lacks the necessary bravado. He should have been more Ricky Gervais than Steve Carell.

The pub narrative is also problematic. Since comedy is built on expectation and bluff, a film which centres on the pursuit of alcohol is a risky one indeed. Audiences have been laughing at drunks since the original run of Twelfth Night; today, inebriation requires something extraordinary to catch them out. We learned from The Hangover and The Inbetweeners that contemporary boozing is only funny when pushed to outrageous extremes. The World’s End is like finding yourself back at a freshers’ party, and not in a good way.

Somewhere in the process – maybe he’d had a few himself – Wright has lost the shape and rhythm which made Shaun of the Dead, and to a lesser extent Hot Fuzz, great. Formerly, arcs were developed over several minutes to a verbal or physical punchline which slashed expectations and spoofed the entrenched procedures of the genre. A garden fence gag from the first film has since entered comic lore, and typifies the kind of dexterity which has been lost under relentless zingers in The World’s End. The film is mismanaged, continually wasting the copious talent available to it.

The audience, however, still seem to be loving it. In my own screening, moviegoers were rolling in the aisles with each successive monster-swat. I felt like a veritable buzzkill, scribbling a critique on a notepad while the guy behind me was clutching his armrests to steady his popcorn and himself. Perhaps the British love of silliness trumps all other offences.

India Ross is a former film editor at Varsity. She is a columnist for PopMatters, blogs for the Huffington Post and is a regular contributor to The Playlist.

Watch the trailer for The World’s End

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