It seems like the 1990s was a fertile time for the emergence of a new generation of British comedy, when there were a number of new star writers and performers coming through on television who in the following decade would go on to make their first films. Among these, comedian Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made a strong impression with their Spaced TV series and then the film Shaun of the Dead (2004), a witty parody of the zombie genre transposed to leafy middle-class North London. Like many I’ve been a big fan of their work, particularly the second film Hot Fuzz (2007), which takes a quite different genre (the cop film) and imbues it with a great deal of generosity towards its small town setting and well-meaning central characters.
So there has been a great deal of anticipation, not least by myself, for the third in this self-proclaimed ‘Cornetto’ trilogy of small town films (and yes I know the first is set in London, but it’s a peculiarly leafy suburban vision, focused on one of the many villages that make up the capital). And like the recent This Is the End it comedically references the apocalypse — which should be no surprise to those who’ve seen the poster or the trailer. The tone here is more wistful, though both films deal with characters who are cut off from reality — the one narcissistic actors, the other a man overly attached to a nostalgic vision of his past.
In truth, there’s a great deal of pathos in Simon Pegg’s Gary King. He’s a middle-aged man who’s never really grown out of his late-teenage years, still clinging to the same counter-cultural fashion statements and love of early-90s pop culture: his clichés are as likely to be quotes from Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (a totemic song which appears in both the trailer and the film) as anything else. In fact, the first act of the film does a really nice job of sketching out this character, as he tries to get his old clique of friends back together for a return to their home town. He wants them to complete the ‘Golden Mile’, a pub crawl taking in the 12 village pubs, which they tried once when they were 18 but never completed, and his insistence on this peculiarly teenage veneration of the power of alcoholic excess as a means of social bonding seems by this point strangely misplaced. All his friends are, after all, now well-adjusted and successful members of society (a banker, an estate agent, an architect, and a car salesman).
The film also does a great job at linking this to observations about the homogenisation of the English high street, particularly in the identikit chain pubs that inhabit such towns: the first two that the gang return to look exactly the same in every detail. It’s not just the pubs either that are the same, but many of those drinking in them and serving behind the bars have not changed; it’s the kind of stasis that infected the town of Hot Fuzz, and in both cases (though in different ways) the inhabitants seem to have succumbed to a very literal possession. This, after all, is the grand allegory that the ‘body snatchers’ theme is tied into.
However, it’s that very overdetermination in the last third of the film that ends up making me feel a little cold towards it. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate the genre trappings, it’s just that they’re too obvious, and (for me, at least) somewhat undercut the foregoing scenes that have gently built up the characters through acutely-detailed observational humour. Moreover, the focus on Pegg’s Gary and Nick Frost’s Andrew, a banker who has unresolved issues with Gary stemming from a mysterious incident earlier in their lives, means that the other three fine actors who are part of the ensemble (Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman) seem rather underutilised.
Anyway, I feel like I’m being too harsh on what is, still, after all, one of the better British comedies of recent memory. It definitely hits the laugh quotient, and makes lots of salient points. Maybe I just find the overweening nostalgia the film shows for a time which was also during my own teenage years a little bit too close to the bone, or maybe I still retain an optimism that there’s a way out that needn’t involve the end of the world.
Director Edgar Wright; Writers Wright and Simon Pegg; Cinematographer Bill Pope; Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 24 July 2013.