Monday, December 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Eric Knubsen, Aubrey Plaza, Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Talk about biting off more than you can chew. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is so ambitious that at moments I wasn't even sure what I was watching. I didn't really care what happened to the protagonist, it doesn't work as an action adventure, super-hero, romance, coming-of-age movie, or an indie comedy and seems to have nothing important to say. It does work as a comic book and video game, but considering it's based on the former and literally interprets the latter that isn't exactly a huge surprise. Yet something clicks. It probably has something to do with the film existing in its own self-contained universe that seems to make up its own rules as it goes along, giving me something I can't honestly say I've seen onscreen before. That's the hardest thing possible for a filmmaker to do so it's a credit to writer/director Edgar Wright that the world he creates for this 108 minute stretch that feels more like 5, occupies that special space. It's such an unusual accomplishment you're almost tempted to just go with it and forgive its many flaws because even the flaws are kind of endearing as would be expected when the aim is this high. Taking a battering ram to conventional storytelling, it's also as relentlessly annoying, overly hip and juvenile as its lead actor has been accused of being so in a way it's the ideal vehicle for him. Call it the era-defining Michael Cera since none of his movies have as accurately captured the enigma and ongoing debate over his skills as a performer. It's kind of a big deal so all his haters should brace themselves because they're in for their worst nightmare. I've always fallen down the middle on Cera so it's almost appropriate I fall right down the middle on this also, respecting the hell out of what it's trying to do, while still realizing it doesn't quite get there.

Awkward, mop-haired 22 year-old Canadian Scott Pilgrim (Cera), bass guitarist for the garage band "Sex Bob-omb," hasn't exactly had the best luck in relationships of late, mourning his painful break-up with rocker Envy Adams (Brie Larson) by dating overly enthusiastic high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to the shock and disapproval of his friends. That is until he literally meets the girl of his dreams in rollerblading carrier Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who changes boyfriends as often as she does hair color. Smitten and obsessed, he's convinced himself she's "the one" and is wiling to do anything, including breaking up with Knives, to win her affections. During a concert he's attacked by the first of Ramona's ex-boyfriends, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) and discovers that in order to officially date her he must defeat seven evil exes (or X's) in video game style fights. If he can he'll then earn the honor of being her nicest boyfriend, even if he's not exactly sure that's a compliment.

How I describe this, the whole plot almost seems sensible and straightforward, but it's far from that in presentation, almost as if Wright took TRON, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (500) Days of Summer, The Wizard and a teenage version of Crank and threw them all in a blender to see what would happen. What happens is a glorious mess that's impossible to take your eyes off of but gets tiresome after a while and makes little sense. The film appears to exist in a normal reality and while no one's sucked into a video game per se, the entire film and the protagonist's daily life functions as one. Complete with title cards, 1960's Batman "Bam!" and Pow!" graphics and meters indicating characters' bodily functions as well as their thoughts and feelings, it's all an extension of Scott's existence rather than something that just comes into play when he meets Ramona and faces his challenge. Some will say the ending is garbled (and it is) but that's actually being kind since everything is a garbled mess from beginning to end, but just too much fun visually that you forget you're supposed to care.

The film is fully-loaded with talent like Anna Kendrick as Scott's gossipy sister, Alison Pill as  bandmate Kim Pine and Chris Evans as one of Ramona's more memorable exes, a big name actor action star, and a perfectly cast Jason Schwartzman is Gideon, the centerpiece of "The League of Evil Exes" who wields more control over Scott's fate than he'd think.  We also have an Arrested Development reunion of sorts as Mae Whitman appears alongside Cera again as Ramona's fourth evil ex, the "bi-furious" lesbian ninja Roxy. But the two actors who most impress are Kieran Culkin as Scott's gay roommate  and an unrecognizable Brandon Routh as the most arrogant of Ramona's exes, a vegan bass player with psychic powers. With his brillaint brilliant delivery of the housekeeper dialogue Routh deserves a free pass to continue playing Superman for the rest of his life. Both do the most while seemingly trying the least, which is no small feat in a movie starring the most apathetic actor of them all.

At the risk of beating an already tired issue into the ground, Cera is Cera again in this but his droll, deadpan delivery finds its comfiest home yet amidst all the craziness surrounding his character. He'll never win any Oscars but as I've said before there is something admirable about his refusal to stretch dramatically and just stick to his strengths, as well as a comfort in knowing exactly what we'll get from him. After teasing us with a departure of sorts in Youth in Revolt (a smarter, more mature film than this actually) he's back to his old tricks again and if nothing else he's always been consistent, giving us the choice to either take him or leave him. His reward for not stretching at all? Co-stars like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who returns to the screen after a three-year absence, which is a relief since I was worrying she didn't survive that encounter with the mechanic at the end of Death Proof. After that and her role in Live Free or Die Hard, this feels like a regressive move. It's really a high school part even though Ramona Flowers is supposed to be 25 (truthfully, both leads are too old for their roles) but what it does at least offer her is the first on screen opportunity to convey emotional depth and inner turmoil, and she does, to the extent it's allowed. Hidden behind crazy hair, her usually obvious beauty for once isn't the centerpiece. Still, another variation on the unattainable "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" character feels beneath her, even having not really gotten a read on her full talents as an actress. But at least she's back and can hopefully use this increased exposure as a stepping stone to better roles.

It's easy to see why this flopped. This is aimed squarely at two niche groups: Comic-book geeks and hipsters (key target age for both: 25 and under). So as someone failing to meet the age requirement or fall exclusively into either category, this turns into a film I can respect from a distance rather than love. Is the movie making fun of people who like these kinds of movies or is this really supposed to be that kind of movie? Does it even matter? But those groups are passionate viewers that deserve great movies made for them because even if their impact is sometimes overestimated in terms of box office drawing power, they've got great taste. Those who read Bryan Lee O' Malley's graphic novels would know better than I how true this is to it, but judging from the cult response to the film, I'm guessing that in spirit and tone it probably did. But even I can tell there are a number of people who will really connect with this. It's fun, but I can't claim it had anything important to say, at least to me. And that's fine. For many it'll feel as if it were made just for them. But I already had that movie this year, so the biggest joy watching Scott Pilgrim will have to be in knowing it's someone else's favorite movie of the year and recognizing they owe me no explanation as to why.


Craig said...

I'm with you on this one too. (I don't only reply to reviews I agree with. I've just been arguing about "Saving Private Ryan" and "True Grit" lately I need a break....) It's the movie that poses the strongest challenge to Roger Ebert's claim that "videogames can't be art." I'd say it doesn't quite make it -- originality battles monotony to a stalemate -- but Wright gives it a helluva go. Bonus points, though, for Alison Pill (i.e., Kim, the drummer of the band). Loved her deadpan timing in this, especially after recently being wowed by her dramatic range on "In Treatment: Season 2."

jeremythecritic said...

Thanks for stopping by. I do find it hilarious Ebert has actually skipped watching and reviewing it altogether (I'm assuming at least partially because of his video game bias). Parts of it I liked, others not much. It's ambitious that's for sure. Curious what a second viewing would do for it (I'm guessing little though) but am kind of shocked it's been showing up on SO MANY year-end best lists considering it wasn't received very well at all initially by anyone. In total agreement with you about Pill.