Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Director Report Card: Edgar Wright (2010)

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

In 2010, I had “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” fever. When the movie hit theaters, I saw it at least twice. I immediately went out and bought all the comics, tearing through them within a few evenings. I played the addictive video game, though even somebody who loves old school arcade brawlers as much as me had trouble getting pass the third boss. I even bought the soundtracks. Both of them. When the movie failed to connect with mainstream audiences, it just strengthen our cult devotion to the film. Five years later – which seems both far too long ago and not nearly long enough – the film takes me back to a very specific place. At the time, I was still reeling from the love of my life breaking my heart. That’s probably the reason the movie resonated with me so strongly. Revisiting the film, it’s still an astonishing piece of work, very emotional, full of energy, and packing a powerful punch.

22-year old Scott Pilgrim, a Torontan that plays bass in a band on the verge of being discovered, is dating a high school student. The sheltered girl, named Knives, is immediately enamored of Scott and his band. Unfortunately, Scott is still recovering from the brutal dumping he received at the hands of his ex-girlfriend, now the lead singer of a successful band. When Scott meets Ramona Flowers, literally the woman of his dreams, all that changes. Scott and Ramona sail into a passionate romance. Yet Scott is unprepared for what happens next. Ramona’s seven evil exes have formed a league and, in order to win her love, Scott must defeat them all in combat. It puts a strain on the relationship.

In his British films, Edgar Wright combined pop culture references to create a fuller world. In “Spaced,” the series’ pop culture-obsessed world reflected its pop culture-obsessed characters. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was the director’s American debut and another example of an indie filmmaker being scooped up to direct a big budget comic book movie. That this comic book movie would financially underperform shouldn’t surprise. “Scott Pilgrim” combines a number of very specific pop culture obsessions. The world of comics is right there on the screen, with swooshing letters, subtitles, and chapter names. The story is set in the world of indie rock, with an equally hip soundtrack. Mostly, “Scott Pilgrim” is influenced by classic video games. 8-bit MIDI music blurps on the soundtrack. Explicit references are made to “Final Fantasy,” “Clash at Demonhead,” and “Mario” with subtler call-backs to “Legend of Zelda,” “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “House of the Dead” and who knows what else. The movie even tosses in an extended homage to “Seinfield,” in a hilarious if inexplicable sitcom-style sequence. It’s an eccentric clash of interests that probably wouldn’t apply much to anyone outside of those fan bases.

Yet “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is more then a collection of references to other works. As in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original comic, the story is a day-glo metaphor for the baggage a person brings into a relationship. When Scott starts dating Knives, he’s not truly over the heartbreak Envy dealt him. When he meets Ramona, he’s smitten for the first time in a year. The rush of a new love gives him the energy to get on with life. Yet Ramona carries her own baggage, in the form of the evil exes. The reason her exes are so bitter is because she dumped them all. As the film goes on, Scott and Ramona both experience the fallout from previous relationships. The film even literalizes Ramona being unable to get an ex-boyfriend out of her head. All the characters are set in their early twenties, when people are first learning that their love lives carry a weight that can't easily be let go off.

These heavy themes of maturity, self respect, accepting responsibility for your actions, and the cost of love are all carried over from the original comics. Mostly though, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is an infectiously fun head-rush of a movie. The movie is consistently hilarious. The way the film illustrates Scott’s mind, especially the way he considers excuses, is a clever touch. The movie masters the art of the cut-away, like a slow and eerie zoom on Kim’s face when Scott says she’s fine. Or how about Knives at the window of the apartment, glaring instead? Or Young Neil’s shouted insistence that the high-lights were punched out of her hair? Maybe the biggest laugh in the movie, the one that gets me every time, is Scott’s sudden escape when Knives appears at the door, unexpected. This is in addition to hundreds of hugely quotable lines of dialogue. “Scott Pilgrim” is so much damn fun, it leaves the audience a little exhausted yet wanting more.

The film is an amazingly clever adaptation of its source material. It more-or-less maintains the exact structure of the first volume, “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life,” before smartly condensing the rest of the story. Though it presents a sweeping world full of details, O’Malley’s comic is a big work. The movie changes a lot, simplifying many things into a more satisfying story. Most importantly, there’s the character of Scott. In the book, Scott is kind of an idiot. He’s a man-child who doesn’t even realizes when he’s hurt people. He has a history as a bully. His story arc not only has him becoming more mature, it has him literally wrestling with his dark side. The movie turns Scott into a Michael Cera character. He’s more a nerd, awkward, fumbling, and full of anxieties. Cera’s dorky interpretation makes Scott’s puppy dog infatuation with Ramona more believable. Usually, an adaptation softening a character or story’s rough edges isn’t a good thing. Yet Movie Scott is far more likable and lovable then his overly doofus-y mean source character. Cera mines a lot of humor out of simply stretching words out.

A genuine criticism of the film is Ramona’s personality. In the book, Ramona is a fleshed out character, full of insecurities herself, projecting a harsh exterior to hide a hurt heart. In the movie, a lot of those developing scenes had to be cut for time. So Ramona comes off as overly cold at times. One has to wonder why Scott is so in love with her. Yet Scott’s feelings for Ramona aren’t much more then a childish infatuation. She is the woman of his dreams, after all. Since the story is told through his eyes, it’s not entirely unreasonable that Ramona should be treated this way. Yet the slight thinness of Ramona isn’t the fault of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead inhabits the character’s dry wit and sardonic attitude. She’s a geek goddess too, with her round face, parade of changing hair colors, and preference for wearing short skirts. She’s good with a giant hammer as well.

Aside from its able cast, Edgar Wright and team put together a dream team of supporting actors. It’s impressive how many future stars they wrangled for smaller parts. Anna Kendrick plays Scott’s more mature younger sister. Brie Larson plays Envy, being all smoky whispers and mean girl nastiness. Audrey Plaza deploys her acidic wit as know-it-all Julie, assisted by some well-timed swear boxes and a pair of nerdy glasses. Alison Pill is perfectly snarky as Kim, the gravelly voiced drummer who can always be counted on for a cold comment or freezing aside. Ellen Wong is all adorable energy as Knives, easily the most innocent character in the film. Watching her evolve from shut-in to cool ninja girl is one of the joys of the film. Mark Webber’s freak-outs as Stephen Stills are hilarious. As Young Neil, Johnny Simmons’ ability to scream non-sense phrases are hugely valuable. Yet the undeniable VIP of “Scott Pilgrim” is Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott’s very gay roommate. I’ve been a fan of Culkin since his “Igby Goes Down” days and he’s hysterical as Wallace. He easily navigates the speedy dialogue and delivers each one-liner with aplomb. Wallace’s frank announcement that he needs the apartment, “for sex,” is just one of Culkin’s many hilarious moments.

Another portion of the fantastic cast is devoted to the evil exes. The incredibly named Satya Bhabha plays Matthew Patel, the first ex. Wearing eye-liner, singing and dancing, Bhabha goes for it fully as the demented evil hipster. It helps that Patel is easily the most pathetic of the villains. Chris Evans, who has probably appeared in more comic book movies then even Stan Lee, perfectly utilizes his confident attitude and way with a one-liner as Lucas Lee. Evans' ability to growl goofy lines of dialogue while keeping an absolute straight-face is a huge asset in the film’s favor. Brandon Routh, the Superman everyone forgets about, is fantastic at playing a cocksure doofus. Mae Whitman may be the breakout actor of the movie, at least for me. Whitman is hilarious, once again playing a ridiculous character with absolute seriousness, imbuing silly liens with even more comedic potential. Jason Schwartzman may seem like an unlikely choice to play the super cool, super-evil king of the hipsters, Gideon Graves. Yet he oozes slimy, smug superiority. He is simultaneously sleazy and condescending to everyone. The movie simplifies Graves’ character. In the books, he is a dark mirror of what Scott could become. In the movie, he’s the most hatable person in the room, an utterly despicable asshole. Only Keita Saito and Shota Saito, as the silent Katayanagi twins, aren’t given much to do.

Edgar Wright’s direction is always innovative. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” allows the director to really show off. The film is all too happy to draw attention to its comic book roots. As Scott tosses a package away, a printed out onomatopoeia sails through the air with it. As Scott plays on his guitar, the letter “B” bounces from his bass in tune with the music. The movie’s debt to video games is on displayed repeatedly. A character gets an 1-up, while continues or K.O.s appear on-screens. My favorite use of the video game troupes is probably the emptying “Pee Meter” that appears at one point. Mostly, Wright just has fun with things, via the on-screen subtitles assisting the jokes or flashing graphics adding to the tone. Part of what makes “Scott Pilgrim” so great is how inventive it is. The film’s visual presentation is part of what makes it so fantastically entertaining.

Like “Hot Fuzz,” the film is an incredibly unlikely action flick. Utilizing its video game and comic book influences, the action sequences frequently feel like fighting games or anime. The scuffle with Matthew Patel has the movie suddenly shifting into a Bollywood musical, with characters singing and dancing while leaping through the air. The fight with Lucas Lee has some great close-quarter combat and concludes with a big explosion. The duel with Todd makes full use of the exe’s psychic vegan powers. The glowing eyes, bass battle, and telekinetic projections that follow are fantastic. That sequence’s wrap-up is the movie at its quirkiest and funniest. The fight with the Katayangis manifests as a brawl between an energy yeti and two spirit dragons, whose awesomeness speak for itself. My favorite fight is probably the battle between Ramona and Roxie, which uses two hugely dynamic weapons, a chain-whip and a huge mallet. The dramatic and dynamic diving, leaping, and kung-fu fighting provides the action scenes with an infectious energy. This is best displayed during the finale, where Scott cleaves through fifty henchmen in quick succession with his flaming sword of love. As an action flick, “Scott Pilgrim” shows Wright developing into a fantastically capable action director.

Even odder, “Scott Pilgrim” is also a musical of sorts. The film’s propulsive rock soundtrack powers it through many sequences. The chaotic, energetic sounds of Sex Bob-omb, Scott and co’s band, greet the opening credits, giving the audience a good idea of what they’re in for. This is displayed even better during the Battle of the Bands, when the band’s power actually takes out the other guys. Music is a weapon in “Scott Pilgrim,” as displayed during Scott and Todd’s bass duel, another stand-out moment. The film even resembles a great music video at times, like during the Clash at Demonhead’s incredibly dynamic performance of “Black Sheep.” Setting atop this are some unparalleled soundtrack choices. When Scott and Ramona first kiss, the dreamy “By Your Side” by Beachwood Sparks plays. When Scott is navigating the party, searching for his dream girl, the character’s nervous mood is represented by Frank Black’s “I Heard Ramona Sing.” Knives’ sorrow over loosing Scott, and Scott’s indifference towards her pain, is nicely summed by the clever use of T. Rex’s “Teenage Dream.” Adding the extra layer of awesome is Neil Goldrich’s impressive electronic score, which powers the movie when the rock music doesn’t.

I guess it’s clear that I love “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” It’s not for everyone. The film’s mixture of quirks, genres, styles, and homages is probably insufferable to many people. Many others are likely indifferent to the things it does. Yet to the select crowd that are on the film’s wavelength, it was an instant cult classic. Edgar Wright’s career seemingly wasn’t affected by the film’s commercial failure, even if Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s careers were. Ultimately, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was likely too esoteric to ever be a breakthrough success. The movie was always destined to be a cult favorite, embraced by fans who will keep the movie’s legacy alive long after the box office reports have faded from memory. [Grade: A]

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