Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Where was the audience when this movie came out in August? For some reason, people stayed away from it in droves, thereby missing out on one of the most hilarious, creative, and original movie in years. There has never been anything quite like it in the world of film, and for that reason alone it would be worth seeing.
Scott Pilgrim is a young college graduate living in Toronto with a roommate, trying not to think what he ought to do with his life. He starts the movie dating a high school girl named Knives Chau, but soon loses his heart to the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers, an exotic beauty from New York. Problems ensue. Namely, Scott has to attempt to juggle two girls, while Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes attempt to kill him at every opportunity, obliging him to engage in numerous video-game-style battles to the death (death in this movie consists of popping out of existence, leaving a pile of coins in one’s wake). If that sounds complicated, it is, but it doesn’t feel that way while watching the movie. Events whip by so fast your head might spin, but you will certainly never be bored.
The comedy in this movie comes from everywhere (the characters, the situation, the environment, the story), in every form (verbal wit, slapstick physicality, general goofiness), using every trick in a director’s book (musical cues, special effects, sound effects, cinematography, and editing). This bewildering barrage of humor might be unprecedented if it did not come from Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. His style was apparent from the first film, and he has only broadened and honed it since. It is worth noting that over half the gags come straight from the sources comics by Brian Lee O’Malley, but their transference into film is still remarkable and unique. Many effects have never been seen in a live-action film before, though quite a few will be familiar to fans of Japanese anime, and various Asian B-movies. Wright manages to appropriate techniques from video games, comic books, music videos, and animation, without every making us feel we are not watching a movie. This is experimental cinema masquerading as mainstream blockbuster.

Scott’s world consists entirely of teenagers and 20-somethings--no older or younger people exist. This makes the film’s scope limited perhaps (and probably limits its audience--I doubt many people over 40 would be interested), but then Wright and O’Malley are not trying to distill all life, just embody a certain brief period in the lives of the Millennial generation. This they do extremely well. Unlike The Social Network, though, which attempts to analyze its era in depth, Scott Pilgrim exemplifies life in the 21st century by playing with our collective fantasies and entertainments, swirling it all up in a colorful mix easily digestible to our miniscule attention spans. First, they get the culture right. The old John Hughes eighties rules of cheerleaders, jocks, math geeks, and screw-ups no longer apply. Scott Pilgrim’s world is populated by gamers, geeks, jocks, hipsters, slackers, indie rockers, celebrities, and Asians. If the story took place in an American city, there would no doubt be more minority representation, but this is Toronto. (An example of the new melting pot: Knives comes from an immigrant Chinese family, but goes to a Catholic high school.) Scott himself embodies several of these categories--he is a gamer, a geek, and a mild rocker--but he is mostly a slacker. The story is not a celebration of this slacking, though, but a call to resist it, put it behind one, and grow up. Scott’s growth is clear over the course of the film: he must learn to take responsibility for his actions, become proactive instead of passive, and put others before himself. Cera plays the part deftly, alternating from dumb to sweet to heroic with ease. He has taken criticism for always playing the same character, but with his last couple movies he is proving these critics wrong by expanding his range in several directions.

The weak point in the movie may be its female characters. They are everywhere, but most get little screen time, and we never really understand them, especially Ramona’s inexplicable attraction to Scott. This is not the fault of the actors involved--every single one of them is perfect, and I wish I could single all of them out for individual praise. The graphic novels, of which there are six, allow much more time for the relationship to develop and have scenes which focus on characters other than Scott. If you felt a little lost in the story or just wanted more of it all, I highly recommend the comics. They give needed back story and definitely added to my appreciation of the movie. In the end, though, I think I prefer the movie. It really does a fantastic job of packing everything in the comics into 112 minutes--the entire first book is in there mostly word-for-word--and the jokes are often funnier onscreen than on the page--adding color and sound helps a lot. As for character development: We see everything from Scott’s perspective, and he doesn’t understand the girls around him at all, so how are we supposed to understand them? He spends most of the movie being remarkably selfish--his journey is about learning to appreciate others as separate individuals in their own right. I think the movie accomplishes that.
With this film, Edgar Wright has surpassed previous genre parodists like Mel Brooks, and become a true auteur of the cinema. It was always obvious that his movies were better than the average Scary Movie clone, but now it is clear that his only peers among current directors are Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. The older generation might never get him, but I think his works will become classics to be watched for years to come.

Another good review which says most of what I just did better can be found here. And lots of other great reviews and perceptive comments can be found here.

Rating: 10/10 Stars

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