Monday, August 26, 2013

The Trilogy's End

Here be spoilers for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End.

There’s a particularly deft trick that Nick Frost pulls in Shaun of the Dead. Frost plays Ed, the best friend of Simon Pegg’s titular Shaun. Shaun, as a character, is caught in a kind of limbo between his adolescence and his adulthood, with Ed stuck firmly in that same adolescence, and the central conflict for Shaun is whether he can make the jump into adulthood and leave all the old stuff behind, or at least incorporate it in such a way that it’s not disrupting his relationship with his girlfriend Liz. There have been a lot of comedies exploring this kind of delayed manhood/extended adolescence, particularly from Judd Apatow, all three movies in the Cornetto trilogy are linked by this exploration of that same theme (the other two Cornetto movies being Hot Fuzz and The World’s End; Front and Pegg star in all three and share writing duties with their director, Edgar Wright).

If you have your fingers on the wrong keys, Shaun becomes Sgayb.
I didn’t notice it the first time I saw the movie, but I rewatched it recently in anticipation of the US release of The World’s End, and once you see it, it’s a little like the Fed Ex arrow. Nick Frost, in playing Ed, is being asked to do something that looks very simple but is actually quite difficult, and that is this: Ed must simultaneously be a huge fuck-up and a believable best friend to Shaun. We have to simultaneously understand Liz’s frustration with Shaun for his unwillingness to move on past this friendship and everything it represents while, at the same time, seeing the value in what it is that Ed brings to Shaun’s life. Many movies of this stripe end with the message, either explicit or im-, that the solution to the problem of delayed manhood is to suck it up, “put away childish things,” and get on with “adulthood.” Shaun of the Dead, by contrast - and all three films, I think - poses this not necessarily as a binary teenager/adult divide, but as a lifelong negotiation. And so Nick Frost can’t just be an unbearable boor or the best of all best friends; he has to be both, or else the movie seems to come down on one side or the other.

This is, of course, the essence of good drama. Good drama isn’t supposed to be prescriptive, but to show you the whole picture and let you make your own decisions based on your own experiences. This is the point of so-called ‘three-dimensional’ characters. However, a whole lot of pop culture doesn’t adhere to this principle, and so it’s refreshing to find it in a rom-zom-com.

Once you’ve seen this particular Fed Ex arrow you can’t unsee it. It’s all over the trilogy. Bill Nighy’s Phillip, Shaun’s stepfather, is another good example. To Shaun, he’s the step-dad he hates, but his concerns are largely the same as Liz’s, and Shaun can be dismissive of Phillip in a way he can’t quite be dismissive of Liz. Later in the movie, after Shaun has done a little growing up, we see the other side of Phillip, the side that desperately wanted the best for his step-son, but could never quite communicate properly (moments later, of course, he becomes a zombie and tries to eat everyone). It’s in the writing, a little, but it’s mostly on Bill Nighy’s shoulders to really embody the whole thing, and Nighy, of course, pulls it off masterfully. Again, it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from an actor, but it’s much more than I feel like we’ve come to expect from actors in comedies. What has always set the Wright/Pegg/Frost oeuvre from the rest of the pack is that the emotional core is so strong, and for a movie’s emotional core to work you need good writing and good performances, which the movies have in spades.

Punch. That. Shit.
Hot Fuzz approaches the man/boy divide from a different direction. Pegg’s Nicholas Angel is seemingly the polar opposite of Shaun, a man who has his shit together to an almost pathological degree. Frost plays Danny, and when you think about these movies at a remove, what you might remember is that Danny, again, plays the best friend to Simon’s leading man, and elide Ed with Danny. But they’re actually quite different; where Ed is abrasive, Danny has a puppy-dog charm that helps ingratiate him to Nick in spite of himself. Danny, like Shaun from the first movie, has to grow up, but Nick, on the opposite end, has to grow down, as it were. Nick loses his girlfriend in the opening scenes of the movie because he’s so dedicated to excellence at his job as a cop, and, through his relentless professionalism and prigishness, he risks alienating his co-workers in the charming country town he’s banished to, as well as ruining his friendship with Danny.

Hot Fuzz is an interesting outlier when the three movies are looked at as a whole; Shaun and The World’s End are much more of a piece with each other than either are with Fuzz. The zombie and alien invader genre’s are more closely aligned than either are with Fuzz’s buddy cop parody. Fuzz is the longest of the three, with two quite long, relatively action-free, acts that set up act three’s long burst of glorious action movie carnage, whereas Shaun and End start up the action a little sooner, in addition to being twenty-to-thirty minutes shorter. And Fuzz features the only biological father of the trilogy, and he turns out to be one of the main villains of the piece.

The male role models for the Cornetto characters are interesting to look at if you’re reading the movies as an extended meditation on manhood  Shaun’s father died while he was young, and his relationship with his step-father was poor. Nick Angel’s inspiration to become a cop was his uncle, who was later arrested for selling drugs, while Danny’s father, also a police officer, turns out to be behind the murders that are happening all over town. Gary doesn’t mention his father at all, to my recollection, while his friends have their own problems as fathers (Andy’s wife left him three weeks before the action, taking the kids; Steven is divorced; Peter works under his father at a car dealership and has a strained, avoidant relationship with his family; and Oliver has no family at all). I don’t know that I’d extrapolate some kind of larger point about society from this; I think it’s a natural side-effect of the fact that the movies, by-and-large, are exploring relationships between peers. (Mothers don’t get off easily in these movies; Shaun literally shoots his mother in the head just as she becomes a zombie, while Danny’s mother died before the movie starts. Gary lies about his mother dying throughout the movie until he’s caught out on it, and the epilogue narration reveals that she dies for real).

The World’s End reverses the Shaun dynamic in a different way. You could read Pegg’s Gary as a version of Shaun who went the other way, but he’s more properly a dark version of Ed, just as Frost’s Andy is a Shaun who’s left his younger days far behind. Pegg’s performance is done on a knife’s edge; he's unabashedly awful, fucking up on a larger and larger scope throughout the movie, and fucked up himself in proportion. It’s by far the bleakest Cornetto, both figuratively and, as it enters its second act and the sun sets, literally dark. In this it mirror’s Shaun, the action of which takes place mostly over one single day and reaches its climax at night (Hot Fuzz, by contrast, stages its climactic fight during the day). The movies, as well as grappling with adulthood vs. adolescence and male friendships, are about conformity and the disadvantages of same, and part of the reason Hot Fuzz feels like such an outlier is that it grapples with the theme of conformity in greater proportion than the other two. But it’s of a piece with Shaun in that, in both movies, the protagonists find some kind of balance between the selves they were and the selves they need to be.

Potentially telling that I couldn't find a World's End picture with Gary and Andy
There’s no such balance in The World’s End, at least not for Gary. Peter and Oliver don’t make it out, of course, but Oliver’s blank basically picks up where the real one left off, and Peter’s blank becomes a better father. (Peter is a heartbreaking case; his pain and vulnerability make it clear that Gary isn’t the only one who had unfinished business in Newton Haven, and I wish that he’d found a way to heal outside of what the movie offered him.) Steven ends up reuniting with his childhood crush, in a delightful inversion of how a movie of this stripe might normally play out, while Andy gets a bit of closure on his ruined friendship with Gary.

But Gary...I want desperately to believe that there’s healing for someone as broken as Gary. The old saw about high school being the best time of your life is a little depressing to anyone who’s had a fulfilling life outside of high school, and anyone who’s listened closely to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” knows full well how bleak the song really is, with its protagonists sad preoccupation with times that are long past. Pegg fully embodies the sadness of someone whose best days really are more than twenty long years ago; at first there are chuckles, then it seems kind of pathetic, and then, near the end, the raw, bleeding sadness of Gary is exposed to the light.

I can’t think about it, not fully. I have to think around it, at oblique angles. I have to glance at it in mirrors. There’s a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Night Watch, which is saved from being the most depressing book you’ve ever read almost entirely by word choice and humor; strip that out and the bleakness becomes unbearable. The World’s End has that same quality; there is a darkness at its center, a yawning emotional abyss. There’s an interview I read recently with the three creators, where Frost made the point that the conflict between Gary and Andy carries more weight for fans of the trilogy because they’ve watched the friendship between Pegg and Frost’s characters through two movies already. This metatextual element makes it all the more painful because its not hard to read what Gary’s become as a consequence of losing his teenage friendships. All five of the main characters carry pain from their childhoods, but only Gary’s was so fundamentally deep, so twisted around with his addictions to alcohol and heroin and his anarchic spirit that it completely stunted him. You desperately want for the Pegg/Frost friendship to mend the character’s hurts, and the movie never quite gives you that comfort.

It does offer a kind of peace for Gary, a kind of moving on, even though it damns a whole lot of people. I’ll have to see it again to fully sort out how I feel about it; it’s meant to be triumphant, and it’s certainly audacious, but in its own way it’s orders of magnitude darker than Shaun’s ending, which was pretty dark in its own way. That’s been the way with the Cornettos, though; they’ve always been great at balancing the light and the dark in ways that make the latter much more bearable. Which is, in its own way, its own deft trick.

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