Edgar Wright is the best comedy director to emerge in the past decade (and yes, nitpickers, he did technically make one movie in the ’90s, but he’s asked us to ignore it and I can respect those wishes). Are there really any other contenders? Judd Apatow doesn’t have a fraction of Wright’s skill with editing and visual humor, Jason Reitman’s been leaning further towards drama than comedy as his career goes along. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim, these are some of the funniest and best directed movies I’ve ever seen. Halfway between Mel Brooks spoofs and Tarantino post-modernism, they aren’t so much genre parodies as they are character-driven genuinely interesting and hilarious stories that also happen to be expertly-made genre films.
The World’s End, the final film in the “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy” (following Shaun and Hot Fuzz, all collaborations between Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost linked by assorted themes and running gags including one about Cornetto ice cream treats), continues this streak of brilliance, but in a different direction. It’s not as constantly funny as Wright’s previous films. Seth Rogen’s similarly titled This is the End might even offer more huge laughs, though also a lot more groaners. It’s just not that kind of gag-a-minute film.
The most obvious difference is in the characters. In the previous Cornetto films, Simon Pegg played the straight man hero and Nick Frost the crude and dumb but likeable friend. Here, Pegg’s playing crude, dumb, and not all that likeable, with Frost as the voice of reason (Martin Freeman, Paddy Consadine, and Eddie Marsan also join in as other mature friends dragged along to relive a pub crawl from their youth). Pegg’s characters have always had a sadness to them, but their self-awareness kept them funny. Gary King, Pegg’s character in The World’s End, lacks such awareness and the drunken deluded nostalgia that drives him makes him all the more sad. Oh, the dialogue’s still consistently witty and enjoyable, but the story’s in a much darker place. Tonally the movie might be closer to the Wright-produced Attack the Block, another comic-drama about initially unlikeable but quite sympathetic characters, than the other Cornetto movies.
Like Attack the Block, it’s also a pretty awesome science fiction movie. I don’t want to spoil the details (some of the trailers show more than they probably should), but it’s incredibly clever, a natural evolution of the social satire that permeated the team’s previous films. It also allows Wright to show off his skills as a director of comedic action scenes he honed with Scott Pilgrim (he’s gonna be the perfect director for Marvel’s Ant-Man, his next assignment). Wright keeps the stakes of the action high, the enemies never truly defeated and the heroes never truly safe. As the action continues to heat up, the climactic showdown ends up a battle of words, with a funny, unexpected guest playing the big antagonist and Gary finding redemption for himself and humanity with a stirring defense of our irredeemability. The ending of the movie is another brilliant surprise, powerful while funny (easily the best use of a Cornetto in one of these movies) and forcing us to rethink much of what we thought earlier.
The Cornetto Trilogy now stands as one of the few great comedy trilogies. To compare with the other greatest comedy trilogy, the Toy Story movies, The World’s End is the Toy Story 3 of the series, only without a “When She Loved Me” to prepare us for it coming: not the most inventive (that would be the firsts of both series) or the funniest and most consistent (the middle sections of each), but the one that goes dark and reaches new dramatic heights, that’s less comedic but still funny. Coincidentally, both Toy Story 3 and The World’s End are about nostalgia, the former in a more positive G-rated way, the later in a harsher R-rated manner, but both are about moving on even as one is tempted to look back. Wherever Wright, Pegg, and Frost choose to move from here, I’m excited.