Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Worth Exactly One Watch

When I heard that Bryan Lee O'Malley's indie comic series Scott Pilgrim was getting a movie adaptation, I was more than a little skeptical. While the current Dark Knight-chasing superhero movie craze proves that it's possible to adapt comic heroes, there have been very few successful attempts to actually adapt comics. In fairness, superhero comics, which dominate the American market to a ludicrous extent, don't lend themselves naturally to it - there is no overarching plot to Superman's story, or Batman's, but rather origin stories and then about seventy years of interlocking, self-contradictory, increasingly bizarre plots (is Bruce Wayne still dead, by the way? Or did Blackest Night fix that?) that you can't really make into a film because they depend on everything before them. The few limited series that do get adaptations - Watchmen, V for Vendetta, this year's Kick-Ass - tend to either lose what made a good series good or make a bad one hilariously worse. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) now joins that not-so-illustrious list.

Well, it is a rather decent adaptation of Scott Pilgrim. In fact, I would say it's better as a movie than Scott Pilgrim was as a comic book. If only that were saying much. Spoilers ahead.

So. Michael Cera plays Michael Cera Character Iteration 8, in this instance named Scott Pilgrim. Literally the first thing we hear of him is that he is dating a high-schooler. The first thing we see of him is Michael Cera, being Michael Cera Character Iteration 8 in a ratty kitchen surrounded by the kind of ratty people who hang out with Michael Cera Characters. It is reiterated that Michael Cera Character (MCC) is dating a high-schooler. Oh, but he hasn't had sex with her; that would be too unpleasant for a PG-13 movie. We are informed by a comic-style text box that MCC is awesome. I'm not sure why we're supposed to believe the text box, since the rest of the movie does its damnedest to prove that he's a total loser; or maybe the point is that we're not. Maybe it's supposed to be ironic. At any rate, said high-schooler is duly presented; her name is Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). It is further demonstrated that MCC is in a band called Sex Bob-omb, a name which I would decry as too stupid to be plausible if it weren't for the fact that I hang out with hipsters on a regular basis. Knives likes them. There is an opening credit sequence that rather reminds me of the "142 MEXICAN WHOOPING LLAMAS" sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, not that that's a bad thing.

I may or may not have shrieked in fear
upon seeing this image for the first time

The opening exposition is certainly functional, even if most of it seems rather inconsequential given how few of these characters are going to be developed in the slightest. The rest of Sex Bob-omb (Alison Pill as Snarky Redheaded Drummer, Mark Webber as Nervy Lead Singer, and Johnny Simmons as Fifth Wheel/Only Fan) is somewhat more interesting than MCC and Knives, but they only ever serve as background elements for MCC and associated love-interests. Which is not to say that MCC is utterly boring; at times, Michael Cera is funny, although I'll admit I can't stomach his strangely rodent-like features for two full hours. And indeed, he's written with more than a little potential for development - the situation of a lifeless NEET going out with a high-schooler for reasons he doesn't fully understand (as he admits to his younger sister: "I don't know [why]'s, it's nice, you know?") is one that could have blossomed into a genuinely interesting take on hipsterdom, something that really made you feel like you understood why otherwise intelligent people feel the need to put on tight jeans and black-framed glasses and gather in large numbers to listen to crappy low-fi rock and imbibe vast quantities of Pabst Blue Ribbon. However, Edgar Wright squanders the potential of the story by adapting it faithfully (which is a pity, given the fact that he actually can do satire rather well, see also Shaun of the Dead).

Ah yes. The story. MCC has a dream in which he is all alone in a desert, whinging. A girl rollerblades through and tells him he's not alone. He wakes up with a crush on said girl, which is only amplified by the mockery of his gay roommate (Kieran Culkin). Just in case you did not catch that he is gay, keep watching, because this film is very determined to show you that he is gay. He is so gay that it is gayer than when Gay came to Gaytown. Seriously, that is how gay the film wants you to know that he is. Culkin plays him in a genuinely entertaining manner, by turns MCC's armchair psychiatrist, surrogate brother, and surrogate father, although he still does come off as a stereotype (a gay one, natch), and basically disappears from the movie halfway through. MCC, notwithstanding his roommate's raging gayness, decides to go on a date with Knives and winds up encountering the girl from his dream, an courier. He then meets her again at a party, awkwardly fails to hit on her, and slinks away in shame. Still besotted, he promptly orders something from Amazon, ignoring the death threats in his inbox as he does, in order to meet this girl, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It remains mysterious why exactly he's so interested in her. Despite being a thoroughly attractive person, Ramona does not display even as much personality as MCC himself. Somehow, rather than convincing her that he is a loser, MCC's loserish behavior endears him to Ramona, and they almost-but-not-quite have sex. They part on amicable terms, and Ramona comes to Sex Bob-Omb's next show. At this show, a strange man with magical fighting skills, called Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), busts in and demands to fight MCC. They fight. With musical numbers. MCC wins, by using his own magical fighting skills. At this point it becomes clear that if MCC wishes to date Ramona, he must first defeat her seven evil exes in battle. So, of course, he dumps Knives in order to pursue this goal. It's still not clear why he likes Ramona enough to kill seven people for her sake, but who cares, the plot has to move somehow. Knives, embittered, dedicates herself to winning MCC back. Again, not really clear why, but does it matter?

Look, I could just give you a play-by-play of the rest of the movie, or I could tell you to watch it for yourself. It's worth watching, at least, if not worth listening to or considering for the plot; unlike the uninspired Tezuka-esque style of the comic book, the movie actually achieves some genuine visual interest with its wildly over-the-top, utterly nonsensical fights. The best part of the movie is the fight scenes; in fact, I'm almost inclined to label them the movie's saving grace. If Wright missed out on the opportunities for satire, he sure didn't forget his talent for shooting a fight, and the battles grow progressively more and more ridiculous and enjoyable (at least until the end, which I'll get to in a second). As a matter of fact, I'm fairly sure that a comic book where the fight scenes consisted of stills taken from the movie would be a better read than the original Scott Pilgrim comic. And the Seven Evil Exes are appropriately Evil. In addition to musical-number-guy, there's a Hollywood action hero who fights with one-liners (Chris Evans), a telekinetic glowy-eyed vegan (Brandon Routh, in possibly the best performance he's ever given), a pudgy lesbian ninja (Mae Whitman), a pair of twin DJs who I'm fairly sure don't have a single line (Shota and Keita Saito), and the Final Boss, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, just begging to be curb-stomped into oblivion). There's also a ex-girlfriend of MCC's floating around, who's gotten rich and famous with her own band, but since she's of virtually no consequence to the plot I'll skip her.

Guess how many of these people are going to wind up being relevant!
(Hint: Michael Cera)
Unsurprisingly, MCC defeats them all by way of 8-bit superpowers and the inexplicable ability to not die when pounded through brick wall after brick wall. I'm sure that wasn't much of a spoiler.

The tweest, as such, is that Scott gets killed in the final boss battle when his The Power of Love flaming katana does not avail him against the revelation that he cheated on Knives and Ramona (with each other). As refreshing as it is to see a movie where The Power of Love does not instantly win all battles and resolve the plot, whatever lesson was supposed to be learned is then invalidated, since of course MCC picked up an extra life earlier (no, really; it is a very 8-bit-styled universe) and resurrects himself, defeating Gideon with the equally overused The Power of Self-Respect flaming katana. He then wins. But Gideon's glasses (or something) tell him he has to confront the darkness within himself, or something, and then a Nega-MCC shows up and they're totally going to fight. But then they don't, cutting off the pacing of the film like a swift meat-cleaver to the junk in a scene just irritating enough that I wonder if it's intentional. MCC doesn't confront his dark side - the side that would presumably induce him to kill for an uninteresting girl he's barely met or date a high-schooler "because it's nice" - he makes a date with it to go and get brunch. Oh, and Knives shoots her entire character motivation in the foot by morphing into a Love Disinterest and telling MCC to go and get Ramona, apparently intent on leaving him behind as well. Let's be honest, if you still care about the characters at this point you probably shouldn't be watching the movie.

Well, after all that, do I have any real summary of the good and bad about the film? Only sort of. I can certainly point out the visuals as its strongest point and the characterization/plot/script as the weakest. But apart from that, I really can't think of anything more specific to the movie's strengths or weaknesses. And that's the problem, to my mind: it's a movie that has no substance. Nothing is learned. MCC even complains about this in the movie itself. The Power of Love really does wind up triumphing, although nobody thinks to point it out. MCC doesn't mature in any important way. He doesn't get a job or go back to school or abandon his motivationless crush, he just keeps rolling along because he's a Michael Cera Character and is under no obligation to undergo any development that isn't funny. The other actors are generally capable, and often even funny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead aside; I'm genuinely struggling to recall anything about her character besides the fact that she's a hipster), but you don't feel any sense of attachment to any of them, nor do they feel any for each other. In a way, the fact that the film spends two hours mocking hipsters yet never manages to elucidate anything about them is the most powerful critique of hipsterdom it could have produced: there's nothing there to elucidate, nothing to do but point and laugh. How depressing.

It's a testament to Edgar Wright's ability to handle a camera that the film is still well worth seeing. I'd recommend turning your brain off, plugging your ears, and staring at the screen, because it's quite simply visually fascinating. Even in the relatively CG-less scenes, there's a lot of work done with continuity of action, motion, and dialogue that must have made the film hell to edit but works surprisingly well. The little comic-esque info boxes that pop up every now and again are usually good for a laugh, and the fight scenes don't get old, even with seven of them crammed into a frenetically-paced 112-minute run time. But if you watch it again, you'll take away nothing more from it than you did the first time (unless you missed one of the info boxes). There's no deeper level to it then pure hyperactive fun, scenery-chewing declamations of love and vengeance crashing up against super-powered violence that's all flames, lightning, and preposterous weaponry. Scratch the surface and you see nothing beneath; in fact, scratch it and it breaks wide open. It's worth the price of a single ticket, and not a whole lot more.

Grade: Neutral


  1. You informed us very well that there is indeed a GAY person in this movie

  2. Don't forget hipsters either. Nice article. Plan on posting my own with a slightly more positive spin soon-ish as will Joseph I believe fyi.


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