Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Reviewing a film like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can be a real drag. Scott Pilgrim, directed by Edgar Wright, based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, has barely a shot that passes without some form of whiz-bang showmanship to make it pop off the screen. Wright and company are working up such a ferocious sweat at times it feels like they won't be satisfied unless audience members actually levitate out of their seats with joy. After all that work, here comes the film critic pulling on his hall monitor sash and scolding, "Hey, can we please slow down and remember the fundamentals of character development? Your movie will thank me when its older."
It leaves the reviewer open to the age-old criticism that critics aren't happy unless every film is Citizen Kane. There may be an element of truth to that but the fact is a film either succeeds or fails on its own terms. Nobody should criticize Hotel for Dogs for lacking transcendent statements about the human condition. You criticize it if it's not a fun movie about puppies. Likewise, Scott Pilgrim lays out its own markers by which it will succeed or fail, namely, to be a fun tribute to the Nintendo generation, to be a skewed action movie where we root for Scott Pilgrim to triumph, and to give a truthful, albeit hyper-stylized, take on relationships. Scott Pilgrim succeeds on the first two counts but comes up short on the third. It's a noble attempt to be sure, but any gamer will tell you, two out of three pieces of the Triforce doesn't equal victory.
The story revolves around Scott Pilgrim, bass player in Canadian indie rock band Sex Bomb-omb. Scott, played by Michael Cera, is in his early twenties and is equal parts deeply obsessed with and eternally awkward around the opposite sex. At the start of the film, Scott is handling a bad break-up by getting into an obvious rebound relationship (obvious, of course, to everyone but the girl in question) when into his life wanders the beautiful but distant and fickle Ramona Flowers. She quickly becomes the focus of all his puppy-dog romantic attention.
When Scott is (inexplicably) able to attract the interest of Ramona he discovers that to win her hand he will have to battle with her seven exes, who have apparently joined forced the way super villains are occasionally wont to do. When I say do battle I mean the exes burst through the ceiling and engage Scott in Mortal Kombat-style showdowns. Wright is wise to offer no explanation for these scenes and have everyone treat them matter-of-factly, like musicals treat song and dance numbers. Wright is actually able to succeed where Ang Lee's Hulk failed in putting a visual approximation of the comic book experience on screen. Scott Pilgrim is even able to turn Cera into an action hero even though, let's be honest, he looks like he couldn't overpower a newborn baby deer.
The idea of engaging in epic battle with exes as a representation of dealing with the baggage people bring to relationships is a clever one, and Wright and O'Malley are able to wring a lot of comic mileage out of it. They bring enough invention to the duels to keep them from getting too repetitious, with Evil Ex number three, the rock star with magical vegan powers, as far and away my favorite. The problem is not with the concept, but with the fact that central relationship doesn't give off any juice. All the film's invention has nothing to feed off of except its own manic energy.
To see exactly where Scott Pilgrim steps wrong we need look no further than Wright's breakout movie, Shaun of the Dead. That flick was just as light as this one, riffing on zombie movies instead of video games. But Shaun of the Dead had at its heart Shaun's attempts to grow up, to cast off his loser friend and earn the respect of his girl. One could imagine the film continuing as a very funny and truthful slice of life if the Zombie invasion never showed up.
The relationship at the center of Scott Pilgrim doesn't add up to much. Scott Pilgrim is written as so relentlessly whiny and passive that it's tough to see why Ramona goes for him in the first place. Ramona herself is something of a blank slate, one more pretty girl in a line of pretty girls, so much so that the audience is left wondering why Scott is so bound and determined that he must have her and only her. If Scott Pilgrim had never developed the video game battle angle it would have been just another shallow indie romance, 500 Days of Summer without enough conversation to get past day 2.
It got so that at about the halfway point I began actively rooting for Scott to ditch Ramona and notice Kim, the band's drummer played by Alison Pill, who generates more charisma with a single deadpan glare than Ramona manages in the whole movie.
I've heard it argued that it is excusable for the central romance of the film to be so shallow, because the character of Scott is so shallow the relationship should reflect that. In this view, the battles work as ironic counterpoint to the minor stakes of Ramona and Scott's relationship. I don't find this argument persuasive. Even if Scott Pilgrim is a superficial, overgrown adolescent the relationship is still life and death drama from his perspective, and his perspective is where the movie is trying to place us.
Let it be said that Michael Cera's maintains the same crack comic timing he first showed on Arrested Development. It's certainly true that we've seen Cera play versions of this character before, but that's criticism for Cera's agent not for this movie. When Cera is finally given a few more confident notes to play at the movie's climax he plays them perfectly well. The movies faults lie not in its stars, but in itself, which is to say its script which finds one mode for Scott Pilgrim, weak and whiny, and like a gamer keeps jamming on that button. Unlike a video game it produces diminishing returns each time it's used.
Verdict: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a decidedly mixed bag. But when it's a mixed bag made with such affection for the material, with such a game cast, and with such flawless craftsmanship it demands to be seen, flaws and all. Still, it's hard not to feel a twinge of regret for the truly great film that might have been if Wright had been able to put the central characters up on the screen with the same eye-popping dazzle as the movie's action. 7 out of 10