www.redeyechicago.com/entertainment/music/ct-ae-0818-borrelli-20130816,0,5271579.column

redeyechicago.com

'World's End' stars fight the crawl toward sameness

Christopher Borrelli

8:48 AM CDT, August 16, 2013

Advertisement

Finally Chicago, a movie that asks relevant questions. Like, why has your annual pub crawl gone stale? Is it the gentrifying neighborhood? Or the gentrifying company you keep? How did a celebration of friendship turn into a night of interchangeable, cherry-wooded Lakeview bars and British soccer on flat screens? "The World's End," the latest collaboration from British director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — best known for their classic "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) — has a poignant, well-reasoned response:

Body snatchers.

"The World's End," opening Friday, tells the story of six friends who reunite 20 years after a failed pub crawl to finish the 12-pub binge they couldn't finish as energetic teenagers. But really, it's about body snatchers. In the original sci-fi sense — and in the larger, metaphorical, gentrification-is-a-four-letter-word sense. Indeed, the film seems like another reminder that the 1956 film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" — the first of many takes on Jack Finney's 1954 novel, "The Body Snatchers," recycled in countless permutations, from the Borg to the Stepford Wives to Stephenie Meyer's "The Host" — has become our great American narrative.

A tale of individuality flattened — only now, it's also a globalization parable.

In Wright's film, his characters become increasingly suspicious of the people in their small British hometown, who seem to say and do the same things now, seem to have lost all idiosyncrasies and, when challenged, say that it's better to relax and allow oneself to succumb to the larger, easier conventional wisdom. The "Blanks," as the heroes call the assimilated, are not even that insistent, but friendly, quietly influential. Scary, but funny — one of the great sight gags is how Pegg and Frost and Co., as they make their way through the pubs of their youth, realize the pubs of their youth have all come to look exactly the same.

And so it was with great irony that I met Wright, Pegg and Frost recently at a Streeterville Irish pub so alarmingly devoid of quirks that at first I wondered if the film's publicists, who picked the place, were being cheeky. Climbing into a semicircular leather booth, the bright morning light streaming through the pub's floor-to-ceiling windows, the TVs all showing ESPN, I said to Wright (unruly hair, youthful looking, albeit 39), Pegg (who had gone blonde for a film, looked a bit like Tintin) and Frost (reserved and collected):

Well, here we are, in a genuine, well-lighted, glass-enclosed Chicago Irish pub … named D4.

Pegg: "'D4' is not an Irish pub."

Frost: "'D4' is a unit number."

Wright: "Still, you think they will ever make enough to reach D12? Then we'd have the Chicago remake of our movie. Though it would sound like a John Carpenter movie: 'We need to get from D4 to D12, right away!'"

Frost: "Actually I think D4 is the name of the Irish pub on the Death Star. Enlisted Storm Troopers go there."

Before we move on I should explain a couple of things. No.1: In defense of D4 Irish Pub & Cafe on Ohio Street — home of a very tasty, coronary-friendly fried egg and banger sandwich served on a toasted New England lobster roll — the owner is a man named Brendan McNeill. He has a thick Irish brogue and explained to me later that his pub is actually named after the zip code of his former Dublin neighborhood. And yes, his pub is boxlike, more right angles than cherry wood, not many people's idea of an Irish pub. "But the Irish pub, even the British pub, is not as cloistered or dark as it used to be," he said. "People ask me if this is an Irish pub because they don't see a leprechaun or shillelagh, but this is an Irish pub in 2013."

And No. 2: Wright, Pegg and Frost are culturally nostalgic, late-30- and early 40-somethings, relating everything back to a moment of their youth, when Spielbergian-Lucasian forces formed them into pop nerds.

Wright turned to me. "Do you know pub crawls?" he asked.

I'm familiar, I said.

Wright: "The pub crawl is a quest. By agreeing to do a pub crawl you are saying to the universe that 'I am agreeing to go into oblivion.' Which is why the last bar in the film is the World's End. There is no day after."

Simon: "'Day After,' directed by the same guy (Nicholas Meyer) who did 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.'"

Wright: "Right."

Pegg and Frost met first, through Pegg's then-girlfriend; then they met Wright and asked him to direct "Spaced," their hit Channel 4 series in the U.K., which led to the zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead," the cop comedy "Hot Fuzz" — which led to success, particularly for Pegg, who is now Scotty in the "Star Trek" reboots, and Wright, who wrote Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" and set to direct Marvel's "Ant-Man."

These are not the credits of gentrification warriors.

Yet in conversation they are unrelenting on how much warmth and personality matter: railing (Pegg) against the recent remake of "The Evil Dead" for "getting the obvious stuff, forgetting the mischievous-ness," complaining (Wright) about a screenwriter who suggested he snip the personable first half-hour of "Shaun of the Dead" that leads up to the first zombie attack. "Which is just wrong," Wright said, "pulling the one part that makes it very different."

On the subject of pub culture, they've become borderline activist, explaining pub names in the film — Old Familiar, Two-Headed Dog, etc. — had to be taken from real pubs in England, flinching as I recited a few Chicago pub names: Timothy O'Toole's, O'Callaghan's, Johnny O'Hagan's. When I said the original plan for this interview was to go on a pub crawl, they shuddered, saying everyone wants a pub crawl with them.

Wright: "I am a lightweight."

Pegg: "And I don't even drink! The thing we get all the time is, 'I would love to go out for a pint with you guys.' But in reality it would be terrible. I am sorry but it's kind of ridiculous to do a pub crawl in the first place. Why not let the beer come to you? When I did drink, I used to sit in one pub. A pub crawl for me would be an excuse to drink more than you should while disguising it under the banner of fun — like a kind of project."

Frost: "Maybe stay at your favorite pub and ask them to install a treadmill?"

Wright: "You know, this movie, it's based on something I did at 19. I liked the idea of watching adults try to recreate something only students and young people should try. I never even made it through my pub crawl."

How far did you get, I asked.

Wright: "Six out of 15 pubs."

Frost: "Or less than half a kilometer."

I asked if, on a four-week publicity tour for a pub-crawl film, they became students of American pubs.

They shuddered again.

Pegg: "In America, the pub is a different proposition altogether. You guys have bars. What pubs you have are sort of Irish or approximate what England has. But it's a cultural divide. This, for instance, is not a pub. This is a warehouse with chairs. A pub is a public house, you drink there but it's like a friend's living room."

Frost: "A real pub, they hate you until they know you. They distrust anyone who isn't a regular. We ensconced at this pub in North London that became the basis for the pub in 'Shaun of the Dead,' and it was very close to our house. But we spent a good three years there before they got comfortable. It was like getting chimps to trust you. You have to let the locals look at you, touch you. Eventually they warm to you."

Pegg: "We became close to the owners, actually. So much so it was hard going anywhere else."

Frost: "Once you become a local, you realize it's you in the hotel photo at the end of 'The Shining.'"

They laughed.

Pegg: "I like this conversation. The difference between a bar and a pub, in the British-American sense, is that in America, a bar is a place you go to drink. And you don't see families in bars. At least I haven't. The pub is more of the social nexus. It has much more of a social, definitely community, meaning in England."

But, wait, I said, there's no gentrification going on in English and Irish pubs?

Wright: "Absolutely there is! Our joke about them looking the same now is right. Our pubs are becoming streamlined, like your bars. The rough edges are coming off. Even the sense of history, the beautiful old buildings, bulldozed. The signage and menus, all exactly the same. It's sad. In the movie, our pub crawl is like an M.C. Escher trap, and that's kind of right: Pubs, even down to their names, would once have a florid eccentricity. Occasionally, an actual historical link. Now it all seems pulled out of a hat somewhere else."

Pegg: "Actually, what's happening, the gentrification, the rebranding, is we're watching the familiar neighborhood meeting place eroded by, arguably, the Americanization of the British high street. Big chains are trying to recreate the pub and entice families back, and as a result, the pubs become McDonald's."

Even where you live, I asked Pegg?

Pegg: "Absolutely, but you —" he points at Frost — "you still have nice ones near you."

Frost: "I do. I live in a place called Twickenham (a former suburb, south of central London) and I have counted the pubs there, and there are exactly 21 in town. People don't go to the homogenized ones. The thing is, we have a big sports stadium in town. Holds 85,000. They play rugby there. Even the bad pubs are bursting at the seams on gamedays. It's how they survive. But outside those matches, the locals don't go."

I said, you guys realize you've made three movies now about people in fear of losing their identity?

Wright: "Or growing up, or losing our perpetual adolescence, or being scared that you are going to miss something you think you can't do without. I turn 40 next year, and there are all these things I want to do before that. Like … just cleaning out my house. I look in my suitcase and it reminds of me how little I need! How many of the books and DVDs I thought I couldn't live without when I was younger don't mean anything at this age. It's a fear of losing what you think made you unique, becoming part of a homogenizing system."

Pegg: "I think that's true. But just as crucially: What you're talking about is being British. We are a small island in the North Sea. A minority community, in a way. Something about being British leaves one feeling always under siege, expecting to be subsumed by American culture. It's not a criticism. England embraces the dominant culture. I'm in 'Star Trek,' Edgar is doing a Marvel movie, Nick did 'Tintin' and 'Snow White and the Huntsman' — all willingly. But being British, we feel on the fringe, always about to be gentrified."

Wright jumped in.

"Perhaps I should say something to the people of Chicago," he said, speaking directly into my recorder.

He cleared his throat.

"People of Chicago, please enjoy our movie and prepare to make us feel welcome when our country is underwater in 20 years. In return, when we arrive here in boats, we promise to enjoy all of your fake Irish pubs."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli