By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 13, 2010 at 12:58PM
This is a prompt for a discussion of the film "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" If you haven't seen it, you could be spoiled, though it's really not the kind of movie where knowing plot details is a bad thing. And no text is going to adequately explain or describe the freshness of the visuals, so you're all good to read on before or after viewing it. But go see it, and then let's talk.
To set up this Spout About discussion, I'd rather not do the obligatory confession of being in the wrong demographic. I at least was in the perfect audience for "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and for that reason Edgar Wright's adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular graphic novels made me feel like a young man again. Because it's been about ten years since I was the age of the title character (and his portrayer, Michael Cera), though, I felt really old at the same time. I believe the divide is a result of the comic and film being made my people in my age group while speaking to the generation after. That makes "Scott Pilgrim" sound like the latest "Dazed and Confused" or "American Graffiti," though it doesn't have that same kind of focus on an era. It's too much a pastiche of '80s, '90s and '00s references to be an exact nostalgia piece.
I would like to confess that I went into this movie expecting to hate it, despite being a huge fan of Wright's prior film and TV work, and I ended up enjoying it well enough. In the context of the writer/director's work, I think he's like Christopher Nolan in that each of his films has been slightly worse than the one before it. "Scott Pilgrim" is not as satisfying as "Hot Fuzz," which wasn't as satisfying as "Shaun of the Dead." I suspect that not having Simon Pegg as a co-writer this time around (actor/writer Michael Bacall helped with the adaptation instead) might be a factor, but you never know with writing duos (I had a similar feeling about Wes Anderson's films minus Owen Wilson's creative input).
In order to fully sit back and just be entertained by "Scott Pilgrim," which you may have heard or read is truly a hollow and mindless bit of pop art spectacle, I did have to get through a number of its and my faults, both before and during the movie. Let's just round that number to an appropriate seven, which I've itemized after the jump.
1. I don't care for or about video games
This isn't some Roger Ebert-level issue. I appreciate video games as both a form of entertainment and art. I just frankly haven't been into them since shortly after the NES console was released. While that means I could still relish in stuff like the 8-bit Universal logo and a few other nods to gaming from before Cera was born, it also contributed to my problem with the redundancy of the plot, which is structured intentionally like a seven-level game with each of Ramona Flowers' seven exes being each level's "boss" (I assume the game tie-in is even more literally formatted this way). Fortunately the framing doesn't get anywhere near tired until the scene in which Pilgrim's band, Sex Bob-omb, battles directly against the Katayanagi twins. Before this, it helps that the exes played by Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Mae Whitman are a delight. And the freshness of the tone and style persist. But that music clash with the dragon effects and what not was the first time I grew bored, zoned out and then silently thanked O'Malley for lumping together the 5th and 6th former flames. At least it's fairly quick, but it reminded me that one of the reasons I don't game in the first place is that I get turned off by their general repetitiousness. If there'd been one more ex before big boss Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), I might not have been able to stick with it.
2. I can't stand Jason Schwartzman
Hey, this is a movie that brings out the "I really don't like..." confessions. Most people are saying it about Cera, while I'm instead very much over Schwartzman's consistently cocky demeanor, even if it's fitting to the role. And here it is very appropriate. I like him as Max Fischer and that's about it. Here we get to see him reduced to a giant pile of coins, for what it's worth. Still, given the reference to Ming the Merciless, it would have been cooler to see him impaled by a rocket and then self-vaporized. Also, all this talk of his character having roots in "Phantom of the Paradise" has me wishing he'd performed a song of his own (it's already a semi-musical).
3. The main characters are two-dimensional
Another thing I dislike about video games and a reason I'll never completely appreciate them for their storytelling is that they're really lacking in reasons to care for their characters. I won't pretend they can't feature character development. But even those with a lot of back story don't welcome much emotional investment. Sure, you want Mario to get the Princess and Zelda to get the Princess, but only as a matter of that's the game's objective. This is how the romantic story comes across in "Scott Pilgrim." You want Scott and Romona to get together because that's his stated goal, and you know he's going to get her because that's how these stories work. Yet there is no chemistry between Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (he's like a young Woody Allen but cuter and less interesting) and there's not really any exposition or actions that communicate they're even good for each other even a little bit, let alone in love. All we know is she's his literal dream girl, they hook up rather casually and then suddenly he's thrown the task of fighting for her as she is his destiny. Good thing there are a LOT of great supporting players, including Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong and Aubrey Plaza
(though she's the same mopey sourpuss she always plays), not to mention Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins Jr., to distract us from the emptiness in the lead roles.
4. Movies don't need to look like comic books
I understand the desire to make a comic book adaptation have a comic book look to it. I get it completely, but it's really unnecessary and not respectful to either the comic or the film medium. It was funny and neat to see sound effects spelled and drawn out cartoonishly in the "Batman" series 50 years ago. It was also a treat to see the panes and page turns in Ang Lee's "Hulk." But it's all been done, and movies have sound, and motion. And comics don't. We also should be able to feel the love between the main characters and not instead be told such via little heart icons. Plus, most comics do indeed have well-developed characters that we care about, which I've already noted this movie is missing. But ... sigh ... it looks really awesome. It's all that "Speed Racer" wished it was and almost seems like the "Muppet Babies" equivalent of "Kill Bill." Wright and his effects team do an amazing job with the way "Scott Pilgrim" cleverly apes comics and video games, better than I could have possibly expected from any filmmakers. Of course, it's that kind of thing where you're enjoying and laughing and feeling good during the thing you later look back and disapprove of. Or simply rip apart critically.
5. The script is cornier than the state of Iowa during harvest season
I like a good pun. I like a bad pun. I love both corny and cheesy wordplay, especially when it's intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Much of the dialogue and clever visual language in "Scott Pilgrim" goes way overboard, though. It's like the Zucker brothers, a week's worth of "Jeopardy" categories, "The Far Side" comic strip, a children's joke book, whoever writes taglines for movie posters, a bad Groucho Marx impersonator and the Schumacher "Batman" installments were thrown into a mixer and this was the smoothie that came out of it. Still, it's a damn tasty smoothie for someone like me. Honestly, though, I am REALLY corny, and I have a hard time believing anyone else is tolerant of some of the stuff in this movie. "Bi-furious"? Okay... It helps, I guess, that the movie constantly addresses its own bad puns, while also meaning to spoof superhero and action movie corniness, particularly during Brandon Routh's cheesy vegan-lampooning segment. And overall it's just witty enough, verbally and visually, to overcome the bits even I felt embarrassed for.
6. I have a difficult attention span
Some critics have attacked the movie for being too targeted to people with ADD. I've never been diagnosed, but friends are sure I have an attention deficit. I think I'm worse with fast-paced, oft-changing media, though, than slower movies. Are ADD sufferers supposed to prefer long takes to short and quick "MTV-style" editing? If so, I don't have ADD but rather some other kind of problem that causes me to grow bored of films with lots of cuts and flashy, collage-like visuals. For this reason, I expected to lose interest far sooner than the scene I mention in #1. But I didn't. "Scott Pilgrim" is speedy and features a lot of zippy one-liners and other content I'll want to keep an eye and ear on during multiple viewings. However, there are plenty of scenes where you get to pause and take in the sights of the mise-en-scene. I think in some way, probably due to better editing and a more straightforward plot, "Scott Pilgrim" is less for the ADD crowd than "Inception."
7. It's not ....
Part of my whole cynical attitude about movies lately has to do with the constancy of comparative criticism. We always look back to the better stuff (why else would I keep writing "Before There Was..." posts?), and the films themselves ask for it by being so filled with homage and pastiche and references of all sorts. There is indeed something fresh and innovative about "Scott Pilgrim," but let's not go so far as believing it's very original. Yet even for Edgar Wright, whose prior two movies were such tributary works that they were each mistaken for spoofs, this feels like a compilation of parts and pasts. And of course I kept thinking about how it has less going on than Wright's deeper yet similar in basic narrative "Shaun of the Dead." Meanwhile, reviews have compared it to preferred Cera movies, such as "Youth in Revolt," while I can't help but contrast the thin romance here with the more genuine and heart-filled "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." Then again, at least it wasn't "Speed Racer," at least it wasn't "Fantastic Four," "Superman Returns" or the Thomas Jane "Punisher." And actually, I think it does work much better than "Youth in Revolt."
So, what did you think of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"? Did you have to navigate through obstacles and faults, as I did, yet still come out smiling?