Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the Movie

Scott Pilgrim is making some noise.

At a Glance:

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin
Director: Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead)
112 mins
TWIW rates: 4/5
Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel recently released its sixth and final volume, concluding the story of young-adult slacker Scott Pilgrim's battle for the heart of Ramona Flowers against her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Scott McCloud calls it "the funniest comic book on the planet right now." There's a Scott Pilgrim video game for PS3 and XBox, and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the Animation" on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. And this past weekend, the Scott Pilgrim movie hit the box office.

23-year-old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a loser. He's unemployed, plays bass in a noisy rock band, lives in a tiny apartment with his "cool gay roommate" Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and has recently started dating a high schooler. But all that changes when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the literal girl of his dreams: as a courier for Amazon, she keeps showing up in his subconscious because of a convenient subspace portal running through his head. But in order to date Ramona, he must first defeat her seven evil exes. Not only does he have to deal with the same messy relationship history that we all must in meeting someone new, but he actually has to fight out that history in a string of escalating boss battles.

Like the comics, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World captures the ethos of our generation. Scott and Ramona Flowers navigate a sea of "It's Complicated" histories, grappling with the interpersonal relations of young adults who never emotionally graduated from high school. Characters speak in a vernacular of humor based on repetition, repetition, and jokes about how lame jokes are. Scott's battles with the evil exes are peppered with tongue-in-cheek, cheesy pun-liners like "You were a little bi-curious? Honey, I'm a little bi-furious!"

The movie is also steeped in video-game culture, up to the 16-bit pixelated Universal logo with accompanying bleep-and-bloop soundtrack. Contemporary movies often take their action-scene cues heavily from video games (e.g. Clash of the Titans), but SP uses video gaming as a framing device for its love story: battles are laden with pop-up score counters and special power-up modes, and defeated enemies burst into showers of coins. When mistaken for a band member and asked "What do you play?" one character responds, "Legend of Zelda, Tetris..." and a running gag has Scott explaining the history of Pac-Man as a pick-up line. With its audio-visual mash of digitized SFX, comic-book popups, and rock music, it's visceral and entertaining. And director Edgar Wright knows how to use a framing device to tell a comic story: what he did with zombie flicks and buddy-cop movies in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he does again with video games in Scott Pilgrim.

So there's style. But does it bring the substance? To a degree. It keeps the plot, premise and characters simple, but Cera transcends his usual role of awkward slacker; he projects a Scott who, when given a second chance, steps up to admit his past screw-ups and set things right. As in the comics, Scott is an idiot who learns from his mistakes: a hero with a hair more nuance to him than one would expect. Winstead as Flowers brings a fitting measure of reserve to the table for a character with seven evil exes. The exes themselves rock their performances with outrageous energy; Indian guy Matthew Patel breaks out into bollywood dance-fighting, actor/skateboarder Lucas Lee delivers tough-guy panache, Vegan hipster Todd Ingram exudes arrogance, and sinister music mogul Gideon Graves plays his evil-concealing nice-guy facade to the hilt.

The movie stays as faithful to the comic books as a movie can. It faces the same challenge as Watchmen: condensing a large body of work into two or three hours and arranging the plot into a coherent cinematic presentation. And while Watchmen staggered under a slavish devotion to the source material, Scott Pilgrim enjoys considerably more success in striking the balance. A few elements such as the Katayanagi twins (evil exes 5 and 6) and secondary characters' backstories get short shrift, but the film actually bests the comic in its effective foreshadowing of main villain Gideon Graves. As a result, the film actually has a more fulfilling climax. Certain plot elements are changed slightly or rearranged to fit the cinematic medium, but all but the most diehard Pilgrimite will be pleased with the result.

The big question is, of course, is it worth your eight bucks? I can honestly say it's an entertaining production and a quality movie. Those outside of the comic-con crowd may have accessibility issues with it, as it appeals heavily to the viewer's inner dork, and in some instances I found the pervasive sexual jokes off-putting. However, the action rocks, the humor is laugh-worthy, and Scott is (more or less) a worthy hero for this generation. If you're looking for some quality fun for the dork within, you won't go wrong with Scott Pilgrim.

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