(2010) director Edgar Wright
viewed: 08/18/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA
Channeling comic books, video games, anime, manga and riffing off pop culture elements from music, film, television, and everywhere, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the most visually inventive films in a long time. For a movie sold towards teens and the cineplexes, it’s almost an art film from its frenetic, cartoony pacing and design, while deep in its core it’s a hipster-ish love story. At times, at many times throughout the film, the whole lively, lurid, comic and free-form imagery feels almost utterly radical and truly new and fresh, overt and over-the-top as it is. It can also be annoying or clunky, and when it’s not “on”, when the film is a little more normalized (typical un-enhanced photography and acting) it can seem a little dry.
On the whole, it’s a pop confection and aesthetic fun house of a movie.
Starring Michael Cera, of Youth in Revolt (2009), Juno (2007), and Superbad(2007), and adapted from the comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley (published by Oni Press), Scott Pilgrim is a hipster’s paradise (a target age no doubt well below my own and a nerd factor perhaps high above mine). The story is set in Toronto, about a 22-year-old bass player in a small local band, Scott Pilgrim, who is still smarting from a break-up from a year before and is dating a 17-year-old high school girl when he meets the girl of his literal dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). With her bright-colored hair and alt-style look, she’s a striking, pretty thing, but not someone we know that much about. But as Scott manages to dump his teenage girlfriend and start dating Ramona, he realizes that he must “defeat her 7seven evil exes” in order to continue to date her.
The premise is transferring life to a video game. It’s a Mortal Kombat-like one-on-one fight to the death, with magical realism-like super powers just taken at face value, and Scott (Cera), a wispy young man in jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts, has to manage to win the beat-downs as they get more and more challenging, a la … a video game. This is the main premise of the film and it makes for a number of interesting and playful sequences, with each defeat resulting in a cloudburst of coins as the evil ex is destroyed.
Director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004)) uses all kinds of visual elements, split screens, multiple split screens, animation (styled after the original comic book), all kinds of text placed on screen (especially the frequent comic book visual “sound effects” of thuds and ringing phones). The world of the film is one of undefined fantasy, the over-amplified metaphor of the battle of ex-lovers as imbued with super hero powers. The tone is one of constant rapid-fire humor, visually, verbally, as well as relying on Cera and other actors’ natural comic timing and delivery. It’s an utterly ambitious effort from Wright, shooting for the moon.
The film’s Achilles’ heel (all superheros have their kryptonite, I suppose) is that outside of the wistful pinings of Scott for Ramona, there is no real emotional punch to accompany the huge, flying, slow motion cartoon battle punches that the characters throw. Love stories are typically emotionally involving, and that is something that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World really doesn’t do. It’s all surface, all in the moment, flashes of vibrant design or visual humor. And while this lack hurts the film, keeps it from being as brilliant overall as it is in its design and humor and general visual aesthetic, it doesn’t slay it, crash it out into the ringing shower of tokens or coins.
The audience I saw it with, mostly who looked younger and more on the hipster side, were pretty enthusiastic. They cheered it when it ended. I spent much of the film really in awe of the wit and effects, but left the theater a little less fulfilled than perhaps the others. Still, this is one of the more interesting films of the year, and more than that, and perhaps based mainly on it’s style and aesthetics, this film also feels very “modern” (I wish I had a better word here). It’s a film that pushes visual aesthetics in a new way, because the film is probably far more post-modern in its eclectic pull of influences and references, but it’s also something that feels new and not just a regurgitation of things that have come before. And that, if nothing else, is argument enough in its favor, no matter its rather lacking emotional depth or meaning.
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