Invasion of the Pub Crawlers

Photo: Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Focus Features

The title The World’s End denotes two things: the terrible, horrible demise of humankind and the English suburban pub where a man named Gary ­(Simon Pegg) plans to conclude a twelve-pub (one pint per establishment) odyssey in triumph. The aim is to go back to his hometown of Newton Haven and commemorate a similar, aborted trek that happened twenty-odd years ago, when Gary and four mates were boisterous punks on the brink of manhood. The others—Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan)—have careers and families, but for Gary the manhood thing hasn’t quite worked out. Drinking his way to the World’s End will be his revolt against time and soul-draining conformity, a ringing declaration of existential freedom—though somewhat undermined by his childlike self-centeredness and raging alcoholism. Gary would be a pathetic figure—a doomed con man in the age of Eugene O’Neill, AA-bound in our therapeutic era—if The World’s End were directed by anyone other than Edgar Wright. For Wright, Gary is a peculiar combination of right and wrong. Mostly wrong but tilting toward wrightness—I mean, rightness—insofar as he susses out sinister changes in old Newton Haven. He’s a funny combination of wanker and warrior. Uproarious, in fact.

The World’s End is the third of Wright’s genre-bending black comedies starring Pegg (who co-wrote it) and Frost, and it’s arguably the best—although who would want to argue over three such beautifully constructed social satires? In this one, Wright and Pegg take a mere half-hour to distill an entire subgenre of American child-man comedies. Gary must persuade his four sedentary pals to join him, the most formidable challenge being Frost’s Andy, who hasn’t spoken to him (or had a drink) in years and for very good reason. Gary succeeds—he has to, or there’d be no movie—but it’s touchy. Striding into their first pub, Gary (in a long Matrix-style coat) and his mates anticipate a returning heroes’ welcome. They find instead that most of the watering holes have been taken over by corporations serving fake “real” ale and taste-alike lagers. The food, the dartboard, the music: interchangeable. The publicans: grim. Still, they drink up. Oliver’s sister arrives in the startlingly pretty person of Rosamund Pike to inject a note of disapproval, her most incinerating stares reserved for Gary, who done her wrong the last time around. Then something extraordinary happens. How extraordinary? Let me tell you.

Or not. My press kit came with a note asking journalists not to reveal the film’s twists or even some of its guest stars. ­Ordinarily such warnings raise my anti-authoritarian hackles but the note is signed by Wright himself and written in the spirit of “Be a mate, okay?” If my ­colleagues disregard Wright’s plea and invoke certain classic sci-fi books and films, you must bombard their comment sections with abuse.

I can talk about Wright and Pegg’s previous collaborations. Shaun of the Dead was a slapstick riff on George Romero’s cannibal-zombie pictures (before zombies were a dime a hundred), but the real target was a certain species of middle-class English complacency and its attendant good manners. The heroes of the mismatched buddy-cop film Hot Fuzz paid tribute to such forerunners as Bad Boys 2 and Point Break while taking on not scum-sucking drug dealers but vicars, innkeepers, and old ladies. The fascists were the guardians of quaintness.

Wright is an even better director now, and the last half-hour of The World’s End is one bravura set piece after another. The action is brilliantly staged and shot, the climax evoking (and equaling) the dizzying nightclub opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The all-star cast is perfection. As for what it all means … One of the creepier figures (a star cameo) reminded me of Trotsky, so perhaps there’s an anti-­communist component to counter the anti-fascist leanings of Hot Fuzz. It’s anti-totalitarian, any way you slice it. More important, Wright and Pegg figure out a way to let their hero renounce his drink and have it too. Their vision is both antic and judicious. This is by light-years the most entertaining movie of the year. How many apocalyptic sci-fi action extravaganzas leave you feeling as if the world is just beginning?

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is crudely ­powerful. You can object to the thuggish direction and the script that’s a series of signposts, but not the central idea, which is genuinely illuminating. An elderly black man, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), sits in the White House and rethinks his life: the murder of his cotton-picking father, who dared to glower at a white master who’d molested Cecil’s mother; his training as a “house n—–” by a plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave); and his subsequent education as a waiter and then butler in the (white) halls of power. Cecil learns to have two faces, one he shows to his own people, one blankly subservient. While presidents like ­Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ grapple with civil rights for African-Americans, Cecil holds his tongue—all while his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is beaten to a pulp for sitting with fellow activists at a whites-only lunch counter. In one elaborate sequence, Daniels crosscuts between the exquisite obeisance of the father at a state dinner and the bloody assault on the son, who goes on to be a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther. Over and over ­Daniels wallops you—but the meaning of what he’s showing isn’t as obvious as it first appears.

The movie (forcibly retitled because another studio had a film called The Butler) reminded me of that seminal ­moment in 1990, when the Oscars ­ignored Do the Right Thing and gave Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy. Ever since, the name Driving Miss Daisy has been shorthand for how Hollywood likes its African-Americans packaged—as if that film hadn’t explicitly invoked the racial injustice that left black men like Morgan Freeman’s chauffeur with few options. Broadly speaking, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is like Driving Miss Daisy intercut with Do the Right Thing. The script by Danny Strong (he plays the Jewish copywriter on Mad Men) aims to criticize its protagonist but also to exonerate him. There is a ­tragic irony at the center of Cecil’s life: The more masterly he is, the more invisible.

Daniels works in elegiac, Oscar-bait mode, but the actors find ways to stay raw. As Cecil, Whitaker stands outside himself. He’s so finely tuned that you can see—or at least intuit—the brain working (and heart breaking) under his mask. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria, and I never thought she’d be able to shed her Queen of TV persona. The character is broadly drawn (she’s an alcoholic), but Winfrey manages to go back in time and capture the self-loathing of a woman with no power. The rapport among the African-American characters—played by, among many others, ­Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz—is so loose and convincing it’s like you’re watching another ­movie. And the performance of Yaya ­Alafia as Louis’s girlfriend—who evolves from a graceful, manicured college girl to a sneering, Afro-haired Panther—is a small triumph. The white stars try very hard, but John Cusack (Nixon) and Liev Schreiber (LBJ) are undone by their putty features, while crinkle-faced Robin Williams is no way no how the smooth-­visaged Ike. Alan Rickman has a few surprising moments as Reagan (presented here as entirely lucid), although neither he nor the screenplay can make sense of the man.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler ends with the election of Barack Obama—another signpost. The movie seems to have been made with one eye on the White House screening room, but in our less cynical moments we can acknowledge that that will be a hell of a screening.

The World’s End
Directed by Edgar Wright.
Focus Features. R.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels.
Miramax. PG-13.

Invasion of the Pub Crawlers