I Hate Camp and Bells and Whistles and Comic Books and Video Games, but I Loved Scott Pilgrim, So F*ck You.
Of all the tricks Scott Pilgrim ever pulled, his greatest was making me love a movie I should hate. It’s campy. It’s cutesy. It’s made to look like a video game. It has a linear, predictable plot. It uses fistfights to resolve conflicts that can’t be resolved with a fistfight. It has that visually-dazzling-but-simplistic-plot that nerds love so much. The pander-y glorification of the slacker/nerd/hipster. Stupid haircuts. The fighting for a girl we don’t like that much. Scott Pilgrim is just a giant pile of all these things that I hate, and yet… it works.
Me and other film critics, people who type words for a living, we tend to focus on the storytelling aspect of movies more than anything else. That’s not all there is, that’s just what we know. And it’s much easier to point out problems with the logic of a story than it is to explain why a certain edit or visual doesn’t work. What makes Scott Pilgrim so impressive is that it’s not really the storytelling that makes it so great. It’s all those other little things that are much harder to explain that come together just so and make it watchable from start to finish. Perhaps the best compliment is the simplest one: it’s just competent filmmaking.
We know from the outset that Michael Cera is going to fall in love with the Four Non Blondes chick and have to battle her seven evil exes (as Ufford so succinctly put it, “the metaphor of fighting someone’s emotional baggage taken literally”). Even after seeing the movie, I can report that that’s pretty much the entire plot. On paper, it sounds incredibly lame and boring. Onscreen, it’s not. Edgar Wright adds so many visual tricks and clever touches that it elevates the story to something worth watching. And I don’t just mean that he makes it look pretty, or that it’s fun because it references old video games. It’s a dangerous thing to say in the online community, but the truth is, I’m not really into video games. Never really have been. And I can’t imagine anything more boring than being inside the head of a video game-obsessed 22-year-old. But that’s not what this is. No, when I say clever visuals, I mean things like this, from Edgar Wright’s last movie, Hot Fuzz:
Could I even explain what’s going on in this? Would a script be able to do it justice in words and text? Probably not. But it’s awesome. A little trick like that can carry an entire scene, and Scott Pilgrim was like two hours of that. A fairly simplistic story, yes, but so well-made and cleverly edited that you marvel at it the entire time. The trick of it is that it isn’t you sitting there wondering which way the story will turn like most (good) movies, but how Edgar Wright will keep up his high-wire act of maintaining your interest even when you already know the story’s outcome.
Scott Pilgrim‘s strength is that it’s so fully realized. So many movies build a world without ever fully exploring it. You decide the world of your movie is going to have this or that attribute so that your d*ck joke or car chase scene will work, but you never really think through that one decision’s other implications. Scott Pilgrim works because even though the story is so basic, every little story detail, even the ones that seem lame or mundane at first, are followed all the way through until they peek back into the plot in a clever way. Yes, cute, but usually in a smart way, not a cloying one. When one of Ramona’s evil exes fights Scott at the crappy dive bar where his band is playing, the evil ex generates a gust of wind that blows toward Scott. In most movies, that would be it. In Scott Pilgrim, we know the roof of the bar was blown off a few minutes earlier, and we know they’re in a crappy bar, so when the wind blows toward him, it blows a big drift of empty plastic beer cups all around his feet like a sand dune. It’s a tiny detail, but tiny details like that are the reason the movie works.
The entire scene when Michael Cera fights Chris Evans is a perfect example. We know Chris Evans’ character is a movie star, but the way it plays out takes advantage of every little aspect of that — his stunt doubles, the guy that sprays his fist with bactine after he punches Scott, the way he interacts with the crowd and checks his cell phone — it’s a perfect scene. I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about Mr. Human Torch, because in a movie filled with great scenes, his was the best.
And to be fair, it’s not just the visual and the details that make it. You become aware that there’s a subtext for all the battles. Scott isn’t just fistfighting the exes because that’s the plot, HURRR EXES ENEMY, SCOTT PILGRIM FIGHT, he’s fighting all the reasons an insecure 22-year-old would be jealous of his girlfriend’s exes (and to be fair, with seven exes, she is a total whore). When he fights Ramona’s ex-boyfriend Todd, a fellow bass player, he and Scott have a “bass battle.” It’s not an excuse for a video game scene (though that part was neat), it’s a visual representation of the kind of math guys do in their head with their girlfriends’ other relationships. “Oh yeah? But can he play bass better than me? Is he funnier than me? Does he have a bigger d*ck than me?” (Actually, that last one would never belong in there, because Scott Pilgrim is much too virginal for that, which is one of my few criticisms of it, but you get the picture).
By the way, Todd is a formidable foe because of his super “vegan power”, because “let’s face it, vegans are just better than other people.” And that’s another thing: even if you’re put off by a film set in the world of hipsters and hoodies (as I would be), Scott Pilgrim is as much a critique as it is a glorification. It’s not a film set in the world of dive bars and indie bands because someone thought that would be kitschy and cool and appeal to the right socioeconomic demo, it’s set there because that’s what the author knows, and he’s honest about it and all of its warts. The best burns always come from an insider.
I’ve already said much of what needs to be said about this movie, but before I go, I feel like I should at least give a little time to Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin). Not to get too freshman gender studies major here, but the truth is, most of Hollywood’s gay sidekicks are kind of offensive. Not in a polly anna-ish, OMG homophobia! sort of way, just in a lazy way. They’re there to be sassy and wear sweaters and take Katherine Heigl vibrator shopping, and that’s pretty much it. Like I said, not homophobic — stereotypes are almost never totally untrue — just lazy. In Scott Pilgrim, Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, with whom Scott platonically shares a bed (yes, a bit deliberately quirky, but I’ll allow it), manages to do a lot of stereotypically gay things (he’s a flirt, he’s a gossip, he’s always horny, etc.), without coming off as the usual, tired, gay stereotype. He’s not a straight guy passed off as gay (the reactionary character that’s as much of a stereotype as the one it’s reacting to, like the “dignified black” you see so often), he’s a gay guy who embodies many of the traits we think of as gay, but without being the lispy, bitchy, flamboyant queen. It’s not a political thing, it’s just honest. It’s being aware of all of the small things that combine to create the full portrait.
Most people ignore the small details, but Edgar Wright is one detail-oriented motherf*cker. I thought I’d hate it. I loved it.