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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

8-bit Nitwit

Here’s where I lose all credibility with my younger readers and officially come out as being old:

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—one of the best reviewed movies of this terrible, terrible summer—is not very good.

In preparation for watching the film, I read the first of the six Scott Pilgrim comics, a chunky, compact book meant to evoke Japanese Manga.  For about half of the story I was thoroughly confused: the trailers for the film adaptation pop with video game fights, anime-style motion lines, and flaming, razor-toothed monsters.  Two-thirds of the first comic is just a boring relationship story, where Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old wannabe rocker from Toronto, juggles his high-school-aged girlfriend and the mysterious, emotionally unavailable girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers.

I should clarify that when I say “boring relationship story”, I’m not referring to a bias against relationship stories; I’m saying that Scott is an uneducated, clueless nerd who presents himself as an over-it douchebag hipster; Ramona is a saucer-eyed tough chick who doesn’t say very much—but when she does talk, she sounds like an over-it douchebag hipster.  The story plods along with two unlikable people falling in what passes for love in their case.

Then, in the last handful of pages, a rock concert erupts into mayhem as Ramona’s ex-boyfriend crashes through the ceiling and fights Scott Pilgrim in a Nintendo battle to the death (the defeated ex bursts into a handful of coins).

Okay, I’d finally wandered into the video game stuff.  But why?  Where was the cute revelation that Scott had imagined the whole encounter—or that his epic console battle had merely been a metaphor for how he felt about the men in Ramona’s past?  The story didn’t acknowledge that anything bizarre had happened, and switched genres on a dime.  The new plot of Scott Pilgrim involved Scott fighting and killing all of Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her love.  I didn’t bother with the other five comics; partially because I figured the movie adaptation would tell their story just fine; partially because I couldn’t stand to read another page.

On paper, co-writer/director Edgar Wright’s movie has everything going for it.  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World packs more visual firepower and frenetic editing than Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz combined; it’s clear that Wright is in love with the material and wants to show off all the possibilities of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book mini-series.  He’s helped by an eclectic young cast that counts among its numbers a stand-up comedienne (Aubrey Plaza) and an Oscar nominee (Anna Kendrick).  Unfortunately, he’s undone by two insurmountable obstacles: an incoherent story and two wholly unlikable lead characters.

It’s fitting that Michael Cera was cast to play Scott Pilgrim because Scott comes across as the kind of bitter pussy who learned everything about manhood from watching Michael Cera films (i.e. nothing).  Cera brings the same emaciated Zen owl "thing" to this role as he did in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Juno, Year One, Paper Heart and Youth in Revolt (in fairness, I haven’t seen the latter two films yet, but there’s no indication that he branched out as a performer in them).  Movie Scott—like comics Scott—is a cypher, and your ability to like and/or identify with him is a Rorschach test of your own tolerance for the kind of real-life loser he represents.

Let’s take a sidebar for a moment, as I give a good example.

If you were to encounter a squirrely 22-year-old kid with zero working knowledge of e-mail; who burst into hysterics when learning that his girlfriend had the independence of mind to changer her hair color; and who strung along the one genuinely sweet person in his life while pursuing another girl, because he was both too chicken-shit to break up and also unaware that she might have real feelings—would you:

  1.  Invest almost two hours of your time listening to the rest of his life story
  2. Tell him to fuck off and then go hang out with some actual people

I’m not saying that every leading man has to be nice.  Some of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes, from Han Solo to Mark Renton to Alex de Large, have been rat bastards.  The key is that they’re smart rat bastards.

Now back to the review.

Scott Pilgrim might have been a tolerable character had he began as a creep and then evolved over the course of the film due to the love of a good woman.  Unfortunately, Ramona Flowers is not a good woman.  As played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, she wanders through most of the picture with the dead-eyed look of a porn starlet who's just realized she’ll never make it in legit films.  Ramona has a tendency to disappear during Scott’s epic fights—which, allegedly, are meant to defend her honor—and when she does stick around, she toys with Scott in a way that suggests boredom rather than infatuation.  Winstead has decent chops as an actress, but you wouldn’t know that from watching what will likely become her breakout role.

The most frustrating part of watching the two main characters is that they are surrounded by far more interesting ones.  In particular, Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and his ex-girlfriend/drummer Kim (Alison Pill), are the only people in the Pilgrim universe who seem to have a clue—so, of course, they’re relegated to the freak/comic relief roles.  Whenever either of these two was on screen, I wished that the story would break away from their troubled friend and follow them around.

Ellen Wong is also great as Knives Chau, Scott’s high-school-aged girlfriend.  Wong injects vulnerability and personality into what is essentially an offensive racial caricature: the sheltered Asian Catholic schoolgirl with a giggly wild side.  One of the two bright spots in the film happens towards the end, when Scott realizes that his love for Ramona isn’t real, but that his relationship with Knives is something worth pursuing—in Wong, you can see a real soul and a big, beating heart that would attract anyone with either of those two things.  Of course, in keeping with the off tone of the rest of the movie, Scott leaves Knives behind at the last minute and goes after Ramona instead (spoiler).  At the end of the movie, I hoped that Knives’ taste in men would mature with age.

Great, here I am at over a thousand words, and I have yet to get into the dazzling special effects and quirky visual flairs that have set critics’ and fans’ minds ablaze the world over.  If you’ve read me for any significant amount of time, you know that I value story and characterization above all else in a movie, no matter how much money was thrown at the screen.  But since this is a big, dumb comic book movie, I’ll touch on some of the more egregious effects problems.

Conceptually, the film’s use of animated on-screen text to represent sound effects doesn’t make any sense.  In comic books, the words “Ding Dong” are drawn into a frame because the reader cannot hear someone ringing a doorbell on the page.  It’s a visual aid.  In Scott Pilgrim, we hear the bell ring and see “Ding Dong” radiating off of it.  I guess it’s a cue that we’re in a comic book universe or something, but it adds nothing but distraction to scene after scene after scene.

Also distracting is the aforementioned lack of context or acknowledgement that Scott is constantly getting into computer-generated fights with super-powered villains.  One moment, he’s a scrawny dweeb holding a guitar that probably weighs more than he does; the next he’s flying through the air, smashing henchmen into coin bursts with a flaming sword.  It doesn’t matter that the effects are done well (Universal has the money to hire competent artists); the action and artistry are just plain boring—and the fact that neither O’Malley nor Wright bothered to dream up some kind of meaning for it all shows a surprising lack of creative investment.

Even more puzzling is that few of the video game references were relevant past 1993.  There’s a lot of Atari and Nintendo imagery and sound effects, and some call backs to Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat-style fighting games, but that’s about it.  Given the fact that video games are more popular than ever, one might think a movie geared toward gamers would be a home run; except that this film is trying to appeal to gamers whose heyday was nearly twenty years ago.

There’s another possible explanation, which is that the retro imagery feeds into the kitschy, commercial sensibilities of younger audience members—the same horrifying phenomenon that led to Woodstock ’94 (sponsored by Pepsi).  Either way, the video game aesthetic feels manipulative instead of organic; a lot of that, too, has to do with the fact that—aside from one shot of a character holding a Game Boy Advance—we never see anyone in the movie actually playing video games.

I’m all for movies that take weird turns and forge their own logic and language.  But movies—and stories in general—must have an internal logic that makes sense to an external audience.  There have to be rules—even if they’re only established in order to be broken.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gives rules the finger (a finger that is attached to a hand that bends at a wrist that has a kitschy sweat band wrapped around it).  The danger with skirting the rules of storytelling is that when nothing matters narratively, nothing matters emotionally.

There’s likely an audience for this kind of filmmaking—possibly even a large one—but that doesn’t mean that the object of their adoration has merit.  If we start giving credit to movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, then we find ourselves tumbling collectively down a rabbit hole where taste and quality are purely subjective.

And, sure, I’ll continue to watch and analyze; because I love movies.

But don’t come crying to me when Hannah Montana 3: Love ‘n Stuff wins a Golden Globe.

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