Movie Review: ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’

08.12.10 7 years ago 17 Comments

Universal Pictures

Contrary to what you may have heard from my podcasting partner, I don’t actually hate Michael Cera.
Quite the opposite. In the balance, between “Arrested Development,” “Superbad” and “Juno” (and even “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Paper Heart”), I’d say that I like him quite a bit.
He just didn’t fit my image of Scott Pilgrim when he was cast as the lead in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and even after watching Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s beloved series of graphic novels, my opinion remained unchanged. Did I go in with a negative predisposition? Well of course I did. It’s the same way any of us goes into a filmed version of a familiar book or TV show unconvinced by a piece of casting (or so excessively convinced at a piece of casting perfection that we’re blind to unrealized potential). You do it. I do it. 
Guess what? I’m not changin’ my mind. Cera gives a decent performance in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” but what he gives is a Michael Cera performance, augmented slightly by decently performed stunt work and simulated musicianship. He doesn’t really embody the Scott Pilgrim of the books and, somewhat more damning, he also doesn’t deliver the arc that’s specified in Wright and Michael Bacall’s script. In a movie that very much intends to be nothing less than transformative for the medium-at-large, Cera’s failure to transform himself is less-than-ideal.
But guess what? Like the line from “Meatballs” says, it just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter because even if Cera never becomes convincing, Wright has orchestrated a film with so much energy, so much style and populated by so many terrific supporting performances, that its central deficiency is masked. Yes, Scott Pilgrim becomes an afterthought in a film that has his name in the title, but it ends up being Wright’s whiz-bang pop culture joy that’s the real star of this sweet, funny, exciting film.
[More after the break…]
I’m not gonna get all indie rock on you and say that I was a fan of O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” books from the very beginning. A friend introduced me to Scott, an unemployed 20-something Torontonian facing a very peculiar romantic dilemma, shortly before the third book was published. 
Still barely a 20-something myself at that point and still somewhat possessing dual citizenship and a working knowledge of Toronto, the books struck an immediate chord, though that level of specificity was never required. An uber-slacker with limited potential for upward mobility, clinging to the questionable aspirations of his so-so band, Scott faces maturity with a sense of heightened drama fueled by a childhood of comic books, video games, TV and movies. While some of the people around him are growing up, Scott is going backwards, launching into an entirely chaste relationship with 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong in the film). He puts himself in a position where he can be sexless and effectively commitment free, at least until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Mysterious American.
When Scott falls instantly in love with Ramona, he also has recognize that adult love means recognizing that everybody comes with a past, that everybody comes with baggage. In this case, that baggage comes in the form of Ramona’s seven evil exes. That Scott needs to engage in amplified combat with these exes makes for a funny conceit, but it’s just a visualization of  that moment in any relationship where you have to sit down and take stock of the people who came before you.
In O’Malley’s books, the fights are just the scaffolding for a greater journey that Scott Pilgrim has to go through. Ramona is a fantasy woman, but as Scott attempts to prove himself worthy of her, they both end up discovering and tackling their imperfections and becoming more real. By the final book, released earlier this summer, the series had become a fascinating portrait of idealized memories and self-delusion, about the lies we tell ourselves to move on and the truths we have to understand to actually move forward and progress beyond an perpetual youth. If that weren’t already pretentious enough, I’d call the series nearly Fellini-esque, an “I vitelloni” for our times.
[Ugh. I’m now faced with the desire to write an entirely new review that tries arguing “Scott Pilgrim” as the “I vitelloni” for the Sega generation, which may or may not beat my “It’s Degrassi Meets Atari!” tag line. Neither quote is going to make its way onto the poster, I fear. Either way, the thesis comes down to discussing whether a whole generation of men have actually been emasculated by years of playing video games that make them hyper-masculine, but only in a fictional context. Or maybe that’s just one possible thesis.]
In a perfect world, “Scott Pilgrim” would have been adapted as a trilogy at the very least. As a single film, and not even a particularly long single film, Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim” can’t help but be only one layer of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim.” It’s “Nick and Norah’s Mortal Kombat,” which simultaneously sells Wright’s execution short, but also indicates where Cera pushes the film. There’s alternate version of the movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Scott Pilgrim that translates as “(500) Days of Street Fighter.” Either way, the fights become the focus of the movie, rather than just the climax at the end of each chapter in Scott Pilgrim’s personal evolution. Romance gets a strong second billing and Scott Pilgrim’s growth as a  adult is given only lip service, which might not be a disaster since regardless of what the script says, Cera has displayed only minimal growth by the film’s end. In the process, a whole slew of characters who are fully developed in the book are left as one-note creations.
But they’re glorious one-note creations and I could run through almost every supporting performance and rave. Wong is a spectacular Knives Chau, delivering the wide-eyed hyper-emotionalism of what is basically an anime fantasy brought to life. Kieran Culkin brings the perfect amount of resigned wisdom and louche amorality to Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza make the most of limited snarking opportunities as Scott’s sister and his random adversary, respective. Alison Pill is so good with the world-weary frustration of this version of Kim Pine that I wished she could have played the richer character from the books. Brie Larson, in contrast, probably makes a more believable Envy Adams than the book was able to create.
And as for the exes, they’re played by an assortment of scene-stealers who reveled at the chance to drop in for a week or two, chew on the scenery, upstage Cera and leave. Chris Evans gives the funniest performance, Mae Whitman the most emotional, Jason Schwartzman the most nuanced and Brandon Routh the most enjoyably douchy.
If Michael Cera wasn’t the Scott Pilgrim in my mind as I was reading the book, Mary Elizabeth Winstead most certainly *is* the Ramona Flowers in my mind. Or at least she’s the Ramona Flowers who took over for Shannyn Sossamon in my mind once it became clear that Shannyn Sossamon would be too old by the time the movie was made. I’ve already seen one or two critics complain that Ramona is needlessly enigmatic and a projection of male desire, as if there were an accident and not the entire construction of the character. Scott’s difficulties understanding Ramona and coming to terms with her past stem from his own projected issues. It would make more sense if Cera didn’t play the character with such passivity, but as in the book, Winstead’s Ramona is protean fantasy creation who eventually gets to tackle her own issues. 
[Side note: I think that the self-conscious acknowledgement of Ramona’s near-mythic status in Scott’s mind prevents her from being just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That she isn’t all that manic also helps. She’s just a dream girl, though Wright can’t quite figure out what her being American has to do with anything.]
And yes, in the book it makes a lot more sense why she might be attracted to Scott. O’Malley’s character is a good deal more mercurial, prone to great excitement and great depression. With that character, it’s almost ironic that for all of his enthusiasms and wide-eyed passions, he can’t be bothered to get a job or an apartment of his own, much less to commit to a relationship. With Cera, Pilgrim is just a child and you feel less urgency for him to mature at the same rate as his friends, because he seems to be younger than all of them.
But enough of that. 
Beating the “‘Scott Pilgrim’ is better as a book than as a movie” dead horse doesn’t accomplish anything and it probably needlessly overshadows just how much I enjoyed “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
At some point, Edgar Wright will make a movie or TV show that isn’t a pastiche of his various entertainment influences, but I wouldn’t encourage him to move in that direction with any urgency. When it comes to features, he’s 3-for-3 on projects that shouldn’t necessarily work, but function as both parodies and exemplars of the things being parodied. “Shaun of the Dead” is a hilarious zombie parody, but also a sufficiently scary and gory zombie movie. “Hot Fuzz” is a parody of over-blown action movies, but it’s also stuffed with set pieces that exceed nearly anything in the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced oeuvre. And “Scott Pilgrim” functions as a video game-flavored action movie, a slacker comedy and an ultra-earnest young adult romance, while winking at possible viewer fatigue for those genres. 
Breaking into video game vernacular is no more or less an extreme embodiment of the sensation of falling in love than breaking into song, though some critics might have you believing that one is a reaction limited to nerds and adolescent boys, while the other is worthy of artistic exploration. And there’s little doubt that Wright sees the film’s fights as no different from Gene Kelly swinging around a lamppost or the Jets and Sharks snapping their way into a bloody confrontation. What’s interesting is how Wright, cinematographer Bill Pope, editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, plus composer Nigel Godrich blend the semiotics of comics, video games and music videos into something fresh yet derivative.
For a certain demographic, the language spoken in “Scott Pilgrim” will serve as almost an entertainment Esperanto. For other viewers, a great majority of viewers, “Scott Pilgrim” may suffer from literal and thematic cacophony. It probably won’t take viewers long to know which camp they fit into. If you cheer at the Atari-inspired Universal logo, if you groove on the jarring panel-to-panel editing, if you’re ready to rock out to the Beck-penned Sex Bob-omb songs, if you accept the whimsical notion that the girl you love could literally rollerblade through your brain, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” will probably resonate on more than one level.
Can’t get enough HitFix reviews of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”? Check out Alan Sepinwall and Drew McWeeny’s takes.

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