REVIEWED: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
August 28, 2010 Leave a comment
Despite countless attempts to directly adapt various video game franchises, the only two films based on the medium that have actually done so with a good degree of success ironically have not been based on video games at all. Joining Neveldine and Taylor’s Crank films as arguably the only works of cinema to adequately understand and engage with the attention-deficit style and idiosyncratic tone of video games, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an exhilarating breath of fresh air that balances its alternative sensibilities with a surprising degree of reflexive self-awareness. In short, it’s one of the most inventive and explosively entertaining films of the year.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a hip 22 year-old living in Toronto, playing in his indie band Sex Bob-Omb and currently dating high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). However, when he meets Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he becomes obsessed, quickly losing interest in Knives and pursuing a relationship with Ramona. There is one small catch; she has seven evil ex-boyfriends, and Scott will have to defeat each of them in turn in order to win Ramona once and for all.
Absolutely shameless in all of its excesses – of which there are many – Scott Pilgrim is a crackling, visually thrilling action comedy that’s sure to connect in some measure with anyone who has ever played an 8-bit video game or flipped through a comic book. As simply a stylistic exercise, it is virtually without fault, with director Edgar Wright flinging flair after flair at the screen, from a pixellated iteration of the opening Universal logo (complete with a MIDI-style version of their signature jingle), to several animated excerpts pulled almost verbatim from the comic. It is as though Wright – who cut his teeth on the inaugural Simon Pegg-starrer Spaced before tucking into Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – has literally regurgitated a notebook full of scribblings onto the screen, roughing up the raw footage with tonnes of cut-aways and split-screen diversions, nailing the typically dense, fleeting nature of the aforementioned media. More surprising is that the narrative actually holds up well to the scatter-shot, wildly frenetic pacing of not only the action, but the dramatic beats also, resulting in that rare film that is frantically paced but also manages to pay service to the characters and even offer a little pathos.
Through its sheer nature, this film will not be for everyone; the break-neck speed of just about everything is liable to alienate a lot of people, but more divisive is its stature as a film made for – and by – “hipsters”. A justifiable complaint given the self-satisfied, overly conscious quirkiness of similarly-minded films like Juno, Wright nevertheless acquits himself by positioning the film as both a mocking satire and a gleeful example of hipster fare. While extremely referential to the media-saturated nature of these kids’ lives, it is generally portrayed in a socially conscious manner – ala Kick Ass‘ skewering of the fickle cults of Internet celebrity – rather than aggressively name-dropping bands and authors for the sake of being current. For those fearing the idiosyncrasy might be too much, the tone frequently draws attention to the pretentiousness of the social subset of the film’s characters, reaching its apex as, when Scott enters a club, a background character says to a friend “Their first album is so much better than their first album”. Though tarred as a film for hipsters – and yes, it is – it is also self-aware enough to poke fun at both its audience and, more importantly, itself.
The real reason to catch Pilgrim is, of course, the fights which, after a fairly protracted, fight-free first act, kick into gear with thunderous, rapturous force, making efficient – though understandably plentiful – use of CGI, with Wright’s confident direction capturing the flamboyant aesthetic of the so-called “throwaway arts” with pin-point precision. Each fight has its own personality, bolted down with several familiar characteristics, such as a neon “VS” display at the start of every fight, a commentator booming “KO!” at the end of fights, and even some energy bars, level-ups and extra lives. Also, each ex explodes into a pile of coins once defeated. The remarkable aesthetic range keeps things fresh and dynamic, yet equally important to the film’s success is the perfectly-cast exes, running the gamut on underrated up-and-comers, each who gets a fistful of screen time here. The obvious highlights are Chris Evans as trashy action film star Lucas Lee and Brandon Routh as Vegan bass player Todd Ingram – the second and third exes respectively – while the rest, including Cera’s Arrested Development co-star Mae Whitman as lesbian Roxy Richter and Jason Schwartzman as the film’s final boss, Gideon, still lend the film charm and pep, even if not as exuberant as the two best.
Meanwhile, Cera is unlikely to wrangle free of his typecast status – not that he seems bothered by it – nor is he liable to win over his detractors, for while the action lends him a more toothed persona to play with, it is still largely business as usual, and while he does what he does well, Cera is a fairly ordinary anchor for an otherwise extraordinary film. As his love interest, Winstead is more lively and impressionable, but outside of the evil exes, the winner is Kieran Culkin’s turn as Pilgrim’s gay roommate Wallace, a cynical, mysterious type who quite hilariously disparages Scott at every ample opportunity, knocking the hipster down a few pegs and best reflecting the film’s self-awareness of its own classification. Though simply too good to spoil, Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins’ cameo appearances also provide one of the film’s best – and most surreal – moments.
It was not unexpected that with a self-assured talent like Edgar Wright that Scott Pilgrim was going to be entertaining and visually thrilling. More surprising is the film’s eagerness to lampoon its own built-in fanbase, managing that rare feat of teetering between satire and adulation while never becoming overbearing in either respect. Also, the moral heft of the film’s central dilemma – that Scott cheated on Knives and is, in fact, not that nice a guy – is actively engaged with and respectfully resolved rather than simply being dismissed conveniently as is Hollywood’s tendency. For a film featuring a 64-hit combo, it isn’t the procedure to expect some genuine characterisation, yet Wright knocks it out of the park.
Pilgrim essentially preaches to the converted and is unlikely to reach too far past its cult audience – which goes a measure to explain its shambolic U.S. box office performance – but there’s literally nothing like it out there right now, and it is difficult to imagine any comic book or video game nut not falling in love with what Wright and co. have wonderfully realised here.