Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Theaters: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim poster and IMPAwards link
Into a cinema landscape of drab monochrome visuals and forced attempts at gritty realism comes SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. It’s not the best film I’ve seen this year, but it’s the most refreshing; upbeat, lightweight, but substantial at the same time. Edgar Wright has impressed before, and in adapting Brian Lee O’Malley’s cult favorite Canadian magna romantic comedy, he brings the strengths of the comic and film media together, along with a few touches from the video game world.

Michael Cera is the title character, a 23-year-old slacker in Toronto who is ostensibly part of the garage band Sex Bob-omb (who kind of suck but are getting better.) He sort of accidentally started dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), and it’s a bad decision but fortunately never gets far beyond hand-holding. Anyway, Scott’s attention soon drifts to the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a neon-haired American delivery girl who eventually agrees to go out on something like a date with him. Many problems result from this, for starters his attempt to juggle both Knives and Ramona, but the big one is that Ramona’s seven exes have banded together and Scott must battle and defeat them all if he wants to keep dating her. She’s not keen on it, he isn’t either, but apparently those are the rules.

You may have worked out that this is not the most realistic of coming-of-age stories. Though it takes a while for the self-proclaimed League of Evil Exes to start challenging Scott, the story’s connection to video games, manga, and other geek culture is evident from the opening (which features a modified Universal logo that I prefer to the current one.) There are visualized sound effects, patches of narration, caption boxes to point out the odd background detail, and music from the Legend of Zelda series often pops up at appropriate times, to name a few touches. (Though the last is sort-of explained by one character having a Nintendo DS open whenever the music is heard.) The battles themselves are pure video game boss fights, with elements that recall various genres of games and in pop culture- one is sort of like a Bollywood dance number, another is a battle of the bands, another still recalls Tony Hawk, and so on. The action is dazzling but also clearly comprehensible and well-edited, an outright rarity in this day and age, and with an exception or two, each of the evil exes is allowed time to develop a strong personality. (Chris Evans is an action star with a team of stuntmen, and Brandon Routh gives a great comic turn as a righteous vegan who gains super powers from his vegan training.) Nobody ever questions the logic of this game reality, or even what happens to the defeated Exes after they turn into piles of coins. (If it’s death, it’s not made a big deal of.)

But the whole thing is more than just a collection of visual gags and pop culture references; though Scott is fighting for a girl, he’s also fighting his own inadequacies and faults. And of course, the Exes are a manifestation of the baggage everyone brings to a relationship; Ramona is no perfect dream girl, and the fact that she’s been the one to end every relationship she’s ever been in starts to weigh heavily on the two. The story here is compressed from the six-volume series, both in length and the amount of time it seems to span, but even though Scott and Ramona’s relationship moves at a brisk pace the emotional reality of it is intact. Both characters have some maturing to do, though maybe Scott carries more of that particular burden. In any case, the reality of the characters helps ground the insanity around them.

Michael Cera has been criticized as a one-note actor, but while he doesn’t quite break the mold of his past performances, he does stretch it a bit. As Scott, he’s a bit more energetic, a bit more upbeat than he normally is, and though it’s a subtle change (the Scott of the comics struck me as more manic) it’s enough to make the character work. Winstead is alluring as ever, and the entire cast never misses a beat. The two standout performances, by far, are Ellen Wong and Kieran Culkin. Wong actually manages to add a bit more depth to Knives Chau than was there in the comics, and as Wallace, Scott’s gay roommate who owns everything in the apartment, Culkin is an utterly magnificent smug drunken bastard who steals almost every scene he’s in. I also liked the contributions from Anna Kendrick and PARKS AND RECREATION’s Aubrey Plaza, to name a couple.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is having trouble finding an audience, so you should catch it while you can; the energy and visual spectacle plays best on a big screen. It’s a bit of a shame, since as I said, there’s a lot here I’d like the movie industry to learn, about embracing color and shooting fight scenes coherently and putting details into things. Fortunately the story is complete in one film (it shares the last book’s rather overstuffed finale, even minus a subplot or two), and I’m sure Wright has more surprises in store in the future. A film like this makes me resent all the films this year that haven’t been as good as they could have been, that were content to deliver what was expected or stay within strict boundaries. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one that, while it looks back on our pop heritage, points the way to the future.

Based on the Scott Pilgrim books by Brian Lee O’Malley
Screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright

Grade: A-

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