Sunday, October 13, 2013

Evan's Pick: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I strive to not take the subjective opinions of other people personally, but for some reason, when it comes to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I find myself thinking that people who hate this movie should be shot in the face.  I’m not proud of this, and this isn’t behavior I would normally condone. However, this movie just feels so personal to me that when people start trashing it, I feel like they’re trampling over my heart (the same can be said for Edgar Wright’s idiosyncratic directorial debut, Shaun of the Dead; as I said when I first saw that movie, Wright makes the movies I would make if I had ambition and talent and friends). Part of this is due to the fact that the film revels in franchises that evoke pangs of nostalgia from my childhood (and, if I’m to be completely honest, my adult life as well), such as Final Fantasy, Zelda, and the X-Men. Most importantly, though, is that it’s an earnest tale about love and self-respect that’s backed by mind-blowing audio-visual storytelling.

For the uninitiated, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is adapted from the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. At the outset of the film, 22-year-old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but when he meets the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he brushes the high school girlfriend aside and pursues Ramona. However, there’s a catch: she has seven evil exes he must defeat in battle if he wants to date her. As the premise implies, the film draws heavily from video game mechanics to tell its story, with each of the battles depicted as a mini-boss fight of sorts, complete with Scott receiving coins and extra lives at the end.

I fell in love with this movie at the title screen. The sound effects and superimposed character captions in the first scene piqued my interest, but the moment Scott and his band, the brilliantly named Sex Bob-Ombs, began performing for Knives, I was hooked. As Knives’s mind is blown, the dirty living room elongates into a lengthy hallway, visual symbols for percussion appear on the screen in sync with the music, and the opening credits begin to roll. The transition is seamless; a perfect synthesis of music, sound, surrealistic special effects and visual storytelling begins here that continues until the final frame of the movie. It’s kinetic, it’s energetic, it’s funny, and most importantly, it’s just alive in a way few films are.

Now, I’m aware of some of the criticisms that are leveled at this movie, so I’ll address the big ones in advance:
  1. Ramona Flowers. Ramona, the Helen figure in Scott’s war, is not a compelling character. She comes across as disinterested in her surroundings and uninteresting, period. However, I think this serves a purpose, though. Ramona embodies a concept—the girl (or boy) of one’s dreams. As such, she’s a blank slate onto which viewers can project their preferred characteristics. In a way, she’s like a concept Scott McCloud discusses in his masterwork, Understanding Comics, and one that Japanese comics and videogames often employ to endear you to their protagonists. They make their main characters bland, because you, the player and/or viewer, are supposed to see yourself in that character. However, the more pre-existing definition they have, the harder it is for you to project yourself into them. That’s the way it is with Ramona; she’s not a true character, per se, but a concept, and as a concept, she works best if you can fill her with your own personal details.
  2. The girl Scott chooses at the end. Although he doesn’t end up with the girl I wanted him to, I don’t think we’re supposed to look to Scott Pilgrim as a role model for how shall we then live. The guy’s somewhat of a selfish jerk, something the movie repeatedly points out. He could’ve just as easily ended up with the other one, and the larger than life point about love and self-respect the movie is making would still stand. 
  3. Michael Cera’s performance. Cera rankles a lot of people, but I freely admit that I like his comedic timing and delivery style. Scott Pilgrim in the comics is a bit more of a pompous jerk than he is, but Cera’s awkward, boyish and often callous affect works with the largely unsympathetic role he’s given to play in this film. Anyway, since this is mostly a matter of personal preference, I’ll just say I’m glad I was inoculated with Cera’s charm earlier in my life so that it didn’t spoil this experience for me.
Regardless, this isn’t a movie you would see for the lead performances. That’s not to say all the performances are bad; many of the supporting performers almost make this worth your time on their own. Anna Kendrick is hilarious as his gossipy sister, Aubrey Plaza plays the super-bitch well, Chris Evans is perfect as a pompous douchebag villain, Jason Schwartzmann is even more perfect as the pompous douchebag final boss, but best of all is Kieran Culkin as Scott’s awesome, gay, alcoholic, “man”-izing roommate Wallace Wells. The sardonic Wells serves as the voice of reason in the movie, bluntly reminding both Scott Pilgrim and the viewer how much of a piece of shit Scott is. Culkin nails this role with his dry but charming delivery.

Anyway, instead of nitpicking what this movie does wrong (which is very little), it’s more rewarding to discuss what it achieves, like creating a wholly original universe and somehow keeping things interesting while Scott fights his way through all seven bosses. Seriously, when I’m watching a movie and know there’s a checklist of events to get through, I invariably find myself counting them down and wishing I could leave. Not so with Scott Pilgrim; each fight was such a fun and unique experience to behold, that I felt something more akin to dread knowing they would eventually end.

In short, Scott Pilgrim is a cinematic marvel, a masterwork in sound editing, choreography, visual effects, and film editing. It flows seamlessly from scene to scene, taking a long, sprawling story and shuffling things along at a brisk pace. The magical, surrealistic world it depicts—rife with extra lives, victory coins, flexible laws of physics and neural superhighways—serves as a testament to how limitlessness the world of film can be as long as there’s an imagination to fuel it. There’s nothing quite like this movie or the world it depicts. I AM sorry that I take it so personally when people dislike this film, and I’ll continue to do my best to keep those feelings in check. Perhaps that’s my own personal quest for self-respect I need to overcome.

I'm glad I didn't pay to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World during its theatrical release because I'm certain I would have walked out after the first thirty minutes due to the mumbly, fast-paced dialogue, tornado of onomatopoeias, and my general inability to identify with any of the characters. As someone who hasn't played video games on a regular basis since the Clinton Administration, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to hate Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Problem is, I didn't.

This highly stylized graphic novel adaptation centers around a 22 year-old bass player from Toronto who must defeat a girl's seven evil exes in order to win her heart. Basically, the whole thing is a clumsy metaphor for the excess baggage we bring with us into a new relationship and how we have to fight through it and become a stronger person if we're to commit ourselves to something more meaningful. Clumsy metaphor or not, this movie defies conventional filmmaking with its sublime action sequences and refusal to adhere to one specific genre.

If there is any fault to be had with Scott Pilgrim, it lies solely with Universal Pictures' casting department. Michael Cera has the gravitas of a pre-pubescent boy flipping through his first nudie magazine, so it's hard for us to become emotionally invested in a film that asks us not only to believe he's capable of winning the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but that she'd give him the time of day in the first place.

What Scott Pilgrim lacks in believability, it more than makes up for in originality with it's Kill Bill-style fight sequences, cartoony split screens, 8-bit weaponry, and awe-inspiring visuals birthed in comic books and weaned on video games. The caveat to all this is that you've got to endure the first 30 minutes of this film to get the good stuff. 30 minutes may not seem like a long time, but it's an eternity in an unrealistic world revolving around Michael Cera's ability not to trip over his own awkwardness. If apathy were currency, Michael Cera would be king, but it's not, and is therefore unappealing when surrounded by so much energy.

Though it tested my patience, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World started to win me over once Michael Cera stopped stammering and started battling. Not only are the fight sequences obscenely entertaining, they force Michael Cera's character to do some serious soul-searching. Scott Pilgrim's problems may seem silly and juvenile to most adults, but I'm sure they're very relatable to the adolescent mind for which this movie was clearly made.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
isn't a film I would recommend to anyone with whom I associate, but that doesn't mean it's a bad film (far from it, actually). It's frustrating because this movie could have truly been as epic as its' original tagline boasted. There are a lot of reasons to mentally head for the exits, but trust me when I say the visuals alone are worth the price of admission. The last two acts are an ocular reward for having to sit through the first one. Definitely worth it, in this humble movie reviewer's opinion.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World falls short of being a great film. Now that I’ve deflated any anticipation on your part, I will say that it is a very good film, albeit not problem-free. I have not yet familiarized myself with the original source material, so I have no medium-transference biases. When considering the style, tone, and pace of this film, it plays as the glossy, sexually ambiguous younger cousin to Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, screened through a filter of Coen Brothers-brand surrealism. There are quite a bit of abrupt and sudden incongruities of content in this film, and much like the aforementioned 80’s cult classics, it uses the contratempo of madness to great effect. Case in point: At the core of this film, we have a young, directionless idiot who takes his first step into a more grown-up state of being for the sake of a woman. This is the same film that features the Vegan Police (Thomas Jane cameo!) arraigning Brandon Routh for violating his animal product-abstaining (and apparently super power-inducing) diet.

As fun as the off-kilter madness is, it can be overbearing due to the injudicious manner in which it is applied. The film goes back to the haircut/hat gag well too many times, and the charming allusions to video games spiral out of control by the final act, derailing the entire film into a pastiche of SNK arcade classics. I would also normally call a film out for having zero chemistry between the two romantic leads, but I’m not sure who WOULD have chemistry with the eternal obtuseness that is Michael Cera. In this cinematic endeavor he proves once again that yes, he can only do one thing in front of a camera. While this lack of variance in his performances can grow wearisome, he really is the best there is at what he does.* Kieran Culkin is amusing enough, and all of the women in the cast are distractingly beautiful, especially when in various states of undress. Unfortunately, I can’t speak much more on the women in the film aside from their deliciousness, as their arcs are all rather snubbed. Ramona is Too Cool for School, Knives is a stock shoujo manga character, and Allison Pill is given exactly nothing to do. Yawn.

I often joke that the British don’t know how to direct good comedic films, because there’s always 30 minutes of crap that waters down the rest of the experience. Edgar Wright is the perfect example of this phenomenon, as evidenced by the rather dour pathos he needlessly injected into the otherwise effervescent films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Unlike Shaun, which features a man sobbingly blowing his own mother’s head off with a rifle only moments after a dance-fight montage set to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, it’s harder to pin down exactly where the fat crying out to be trimmed in this film is. Yet it still exists, and had me checking my watch several times. Despite the flaws, this film will be entering my collection. I’d give it a B+.

*Secret Wolverine Reference!

Were one thing changed about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, were the movie simply imagined as a silent film, it would have been one of the most creative, innovative blending of media audiences have seen in years, something noteworthy and glorious in its undertaking. This is to say the visuals for Scott Pilgrim are top-notch. The film’s a vivid, beautiful array of colors, thoughtful editing, clever transitions and fast-paced composition that keeps the eyes glued to the screen, leading the viewers with playful direction by a director with a penchant for thinking far beyond standard cinematic convention. Director Edgar Wright took the source material and re-imagined it for the screen, craftily immersing video game tropes, cues and designs in a way that was engaging and fun. However, where the camera sprouted an artful floral arrangement, the writing and characterization unleashed a toxic contamination on the landscape.

To say this movie, as some wolves in sheep’s clothing may claim, is a laugh-out-loud riot is a stretch. The jokes, if one can call them jokes, are delivered with the near-deadpan, apathetic sigh of a cast seemingly tired and bored with existence. Whether it’s Ramona Flowers and her humdrum lack of enthusiasm or Scott Pilgrim and the gang with their sleepy, passionless yawn through this epic, the real failing comes from this aspect of the film, this lack of heart juxtaposed to a direction style teeming with energy. Aside from the cleverly sardonic Kieran Culkin, corpses litter the screen, and a relationship between two people with zero chemistry is forced upon the audience as Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers casually smirk and shrug their way through a supposedly endearing adventure. They trudged, not ran, stumbling over wit that wishfully could be misconstrued as the joke it was intended to be.

And that’s the real tragedy with this otherwise masterpiece. Vampires haunt it. Soul devourers feed off the energy, and we, as an audience, are asked to relate to a lead meandering through a life removed from any dangerous attachment to existence. Sure, he falls in love, but his love is the calm half-smile we’d expect from stereotypical proper English gentlemen of the Victorian Era—absolutely boring. How are we supposed to relate? Why are we supposed to care?

When I do recommend this flick, and I have on occasion, I try and convince people to watch it on mute. Sure, a few wonderful video game musical riffs will be missed, but the high energy is unabated this way. Its hearts are filled across the screen, and its energy is pulse pounding. On mute, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the Holy Grail, rejuvenating in its cinematic fervor and hopeful to the art of film. 

Next: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Get psyched!


  1. Evan, I've got to commend you for tying Scott McCloud's work to this film, while raising an interesting point about intentional blandness. I interpreted Ramona's lack of depth as a representation of the Tragically Hip, Cool With a Capital C-type crowd, who are rarely as interesting in real life as those who envy them. I also have to say that films are much harder to review then comics for me, because the closure from frame to frame is instantaneous, and does not rely on the viewer to execute like panel to panel closure does in a strip or funny book.

    1. Something I mentioned to Conor privately was that the film is one of the most loyal comic book adaptations that I can think of, and that Ramona's lack of character depth could simply be a matter of comic book character development not being instantly translatable into film character development. However, Evan/Conor both raised interesting points in regard to the the leading lady, and I wanted to weigh in on that: personally I never thought twice about Ramona, she seems to simply be O'Malley's projection of the ultimate hot punk rock chick, a personification of the one from the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl". I think that ties into what Evan said about projecting your own version of a character (though what he says is an actual creative tool employed by many filmmakers, comic book writers, etc) and her stoic "coolness" is also done in a tongue in cheek manner. Anyway, I would take Ramona at face value rather than view her perceived "blandness" as an oversight on the director's behalf.