Sunday, 29 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim is a 23 year old Canadian slacker who spends all day playing old video games when he isn't playing bass in a shitty band. I guess you could call him a hipster, although that word has been abused so much that I don't even know what it means anymore. He is dating a 17 year old girl named Knives Chau, although she is all but forgotten when he becomes obsessed with a mysterious American ex-pat named Ramona Flowers. He learns that in order to win her love he is going to have to deal with the emotional fallout from her past relationships and hopefully grow up a little in the process and stop being such a whiny douchebag. I should also mention that in the world of Scott Pilgrim (the one he is versus) these kind of issues are generally dealt with through wicked awesome kung fu fights and the acquisition of video game style powerups.

Before we get further I should lay my nerd-cards on the table and admit that I'm a big fan of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, although it shouldn't come as a surprise that I like a comic book that uses fistfights as metaphors for dealing with emotional baggage. I was also pretty excited when I heard that Edgar Wright was going to direct, as I like pretty much everything he has done. I don't get this mentality amongst nerds that a film director has to be "one of us" in order to "get it", but I think in this case it's pretty important and anyone who has seen Spaced knows that Wright shares a lot of the same obsessions as the comic. He's a solid filmmaker to boot. I knew the series was in safe hands.

The appeal of the comic is that it's full of all these crazy ideas that bubble up without comment or explanation. In the world of Scott Pilgrim, delivery girls travel through "subspace highways" in people's subconscious and veganism gives you telekinetic superpowers. Indie bands can rock so hard that they literally kill you and every argument is resolved through video-game-inspired epic kung fu battles. When enemies are defeated in battle they explode into change; "Not even enough for the bus ride home" Scott laments after he defeats his first opponent. All of this is carried through into the movie, which uses all sorts of audio and visual effects to make it look more like a cartoon or a video game. Wright peppers the film with all sort of joyfully absurd touches. There is one scene in the film that has a laugh track like an episode of Seinfeld, complete with theme music. No real reason that I could tell.

There are also all the video game references, which get a bit obnoxious after a while. The first time a band is named after an obscure old video game it's cute; the fourth time it isn't. However, one thing I like about both the comic books and the movie is the way it incorporates video game iconography to tell the story, using things like status bars and experience points as metaphors for Scott's personal growth. Video games have a language all of their own, so it's interesting to see it being used in a different medium.

With a visual style drawn from comic books and video games, this film could have easily been hyperactive and visually overwhelming. Luckily this isn't the case, thanks to some skillful editing and meticulous composition. The fighting in particular is great, shot in an exaggerated, wire-fu style which suits the source material perfectly. No shaky-cam bullshit here (The Expendables, I'm looking at you). Everything is accentuated with sound and visual effects to make it seem like a video game. As a result it never seems like anyone is in any real danger of being hurt, so the fights don't really have the tension of a tradition action scene, but they are really well put together and are a lot of fun to watch.

Another thing that could have gone disastrously wrong was the pacing. It's never an easy task to compress six chunky graphic novels into a feature film, but they were very smart in the way they pared down the narrative to the bare essentials. It was touch and go for the first fifteen minutes, which goes from jump-cut to jump-cut so rapidly that it's completely disorienting, but it settles down to a more manageable pace later on. Even with some good script decisions (the film completely drops the subplot about Knives' dad, which I thought was pointless anyway) it moves way too fast to develop any of the characters. To be honest I would have preferred a few more character moments, even at the expense of an evil ex or two.

This ties into the major problem with the film (and to a lesser extent the comics), which is that the central protagonists aren't particularly likeable or interesting. It's never clear why Scott Pilgrim is infatuated with Ramona Flowers or vice versa, a pretty damning flaw when the plot is structured around Scott fighting for their relationship. I've heard people say that their relationship is intentionally shallow, another manifestation of Scott's emotionally stunted world view, but that doesn't fly with me. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be rooting for Scott to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes and win over her love. You can use meta-textual arguments to justify all sort of narrative shortcomings. The ending of the comic book was more satisfying in that respect. It plays out a lot differently than the movie, which is not surprising since the last book hadn't been written when it was being filmed.

I also have to mention the casting, which is excellent. Ellen Wong is a particular highlight as Knives Chau. Aubrey Plaza is great as the bitchy Julie Powers (although this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen her in Parks and Recreation). Kieran Culkin is great as Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells, Jason Schwartzman is eminently hateable as Gideon Graves, and I just should stop before I just list the entire imdb credits. Special mention must be made of Toronto, who is typically typecast as New York but here has a rare role playing herself. Congratulations, Toronto. Nice to see you getting some recognition.

When it comes to the cast though, the skinny, awkward elephant in the room is the choice of Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim. Now I don't have a hate-on for this guy like a lot of people do. He doesn't have a lot of range as an actor but I think he's good at what he does, so I don't want it to seem like I'm riding a wave of Internet e-hate when I say that I don't think he was a good choice here. Scott Pilgrim comes across as almost unbearably whiny, and while Scott Pigrim was whiny and self-absorbed in the comics he could be cocky and self-assured too. That doesn't come across too well in the movie, making his character a lot less likable and a lot more punchable.

Anyway, I think this is a fun film worth seeing. It's definitely worth seeing if you are a fan of the comic in any way, shape or form, although if that's the case you've probably already seen it. Good thing too, because I don't think it will be in cinemas for much longer. It has flopped so hard. Audiences have spoken and they would rather see Julia Roberts engage in self-indulgent travel-porn. Between this movie and Kick-Ass, I think producers are going to think twice about funding big-budget nerd-pandering movies, regardless of how well they are received at Comic Con. It's a shame, because while flawed it's pretty rare that a film comes along that is this fun and creative.

No comments: