The laddish pleasures of The World's End, Edgar Wright's comedy about a group of middle-aged guys drinking beer and facing mortality, come with a bittersweet edge. In the old days, the lead character, Gary King, used to be the coolest kid in school, at least in the outlaw sense: He'd strut through his little English town in a flowing black coat and Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, and the establishment could kiss his royal arse. Except it didn't. Cut to the present, where Gary, jobless and aimless, decides to get all his old mates together so they can finally complete the massive pub crawl they'd left unfinished 20-odd years earlier. The present-day Gary, played by Simon Pegg, has kept the coat and the T-shirt, a uniform he dons proudly for this reunion. The clothes still fit him; what he can't see is that they no longer suit him.
But wait — that makes The World's End, the third comedy from the writing team of Pegg and Wright, sound way too serious. And it's really only sort of serious, when it's not being totally ridiculous. Like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz before it, The World's End is a big, shaggy dog of a thing, a free-spirited ramble held together by off-kilter asides, clever-dumb puns and seemingly random bits of dialogue that could almost become catchphrases in spite of themselves. (In the days since I've seen The World's End, I've often found myself muttering, for no earthly reason, "Fuck off, you big lamp!") Like Shaun of the Dead, The World's End also features a supernatural element, though Wright has begged critics not to give too much of it away. But he never said we couldn't call it Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Diner, so there you go.
Actually, the supernatural stuff doesn't kick in until fairly late. The movie's first quarter deals mostly with the somewhat prickly relationships between this group of friends, played by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Pegg regular Nick Frost. Gary is the only one among them who doesn't have a real job; most have families and heavy-duty responsibilities, though all are at least a little lost. Considine's character has long harbored a crush on Freeman's sister, played by the ever-radiant Rosamund Pike. He gets a second chance with her when she shows up at one of the scheduled pub stops, but Gary intervenes, clumsily pawing her as if he were God's gift, which he decidedly is not.
To be a woman watching The World's End is to find yourself wondering, "Don't guys know anything?" Come to think of it, that's true of nearly all of Wright's movies, especially Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which tried (and failed) to elevate fanboy cluelessness into something noble and possibly even sexy. The exuberance of Wright's movies is always their strong suit. But structurally, they're so loose-jointed — held together with rubber bands, pieces of string, and other bits and bobs — that they almost fall apart even as you're watching them. (Hot Fuzz may be the exception — somehow, it holds pretty tight via a mysterious centrifugal dada logic.) Wright's movies can be great fun, but they demand that you live in their moment, because once they're over, you're left with little more than a handful of chuckles.
The World's End does strive for something more: When the boys return to their town — it has the hypercozy name Newton Haven — no one remembers them. Whatever swagger they might have had as young men has burned off. If they ever were somebodies, they're now most certainly nobodies, and that revelation — though it has a supernatural explanation — is crushing. What's more, as they trek from pub to pub, they realize that each one now looks just like the last. The individualistic little watering holes of the old days, each with its own specific quirks, have now succumbed to generic renovations.
It's all well and good to tell stories of middle-aged men reckoning with both their lost youth and their impending mortality. But The World's End is perhaps more touching for what it says about the changed landscape of England. The soundtrack here is marvelous, a mix of '90s numbers from the likes of the Stone Roses, Suede and Primal Scream. But in its most elegiac moments, The World's End conjures a much older song that Wright doesn't include here (though he featured it in Hot Fuzz): What this village of McPubs needs is a little of the Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society." Everybody confronts his or her lost youth. But when your favorite pub starts offering a vegan menu, it really does seem like the end of the world.