Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Made only a decade after he first garnered attention for his Britcom, Spaced, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could serve as a bookend to his brief but infinitely rewarding career to this point. Spaced was about the VCR Generation, late-Gen-X slackers who communicated solely through pop culture references to cult movies and genre T.V. shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Scott Pilgrim, adapted from Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series, plays like Spaced jumped forward a generation, charting millennials whose basis of shared knowledge is video games, animé and the Alpha and Omega of the Internet.

The key difference between Wright's breakthrough series and this film, of course, is that in the interim between them, he create two of the funniest, wildest and most visually astute genre films of the last 25 years. Shaun of the Dead turned a minuscule budget into a zombie spoof that worked perfectly as a zombie film, and therefore it also worked as a piercing social critique. The same slackers who wandered around dead-eyed in Spaced were now equated with zombies, forcing the protagonist to beat down creatures whom he somewhat resembled. Hot Fuzz, of course, was about a hero cop foisted onto a calm hamlet where the police force was made up of slackers of all ages, as if the refuse of each generation somehow trickled down their separate paths into the same delta.

With these films, Wright stands with Quentin Tarantino as the most daring and insightful genre movie director around, and both work so well because of layers not easily gleaned from their wild rides. As I argued in my defense of Tarantino's masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, the director is a surprising moralist in the vein of Sam Peckinpah, capable of reveling in everything he's subtly warning us against. If Peckinpah warned us against fascism by becoming fascist himself in Straw Dogs, Tarantino left glimpses of meditation in the middle of the animé lunacy of Kill Bill, and he celebrated his Jewish revenge fantasy even as he condemned the good guys for becoming terrorists to fight terror. His fans are routinely as blind to this as his detractors, hence the proliferation of movies that simply glorify violence entirely.

Wright, on the other hand, eschews moralism for a sense of empathy. Beneath the wild mash-ups of Spaced is an interest in character that develops a cast of oddballs to the point that their quirks no longer seem an added flight of fancy to give the material a hook but genuine, identifiably human traits grounded in feelings of loneliness and doubt. Shaun of the Dead may have suggested that only something as destructive as a supernatural holocaust could snap youth out of their self-consumed reverie, but it nevertheless advanced its characters, touching upon responsibilities in relationships both Platonic and romantic. Hot Fuzz played up the latent homosexuality rampant in buddy cop films, but Wright developed the story until the two leads felt more convincingly like friends and partners than in nearly any "legitimate" buddy film.

Now, without Simon Pegg helping as his writing partner, Wright tackles material that almost seems as if it were written to be filmed by him. Scott Pilgrim follows a world so similar yet so completely removed from '90s geekdom that even the older siblings of teenagers may feel culture shock. Where the layabouts of yore connected through all those geek movies and TV shows, now the linking element is YouTube and video games. People form clans on World of Warcraft, discuss battle plans for Modern Warfare 2 as if actually going into a fight and communicate through written snippets sent instantly on Twitter, Facebook, Skype and other programs. Everything is flashy, pixellated and brief, and the kids who grow up this way are attention deficit and emotionally transient, capable of moving from fad to fad so quickly that even the fading pop culture items of the '70s and '80s seem permanent hallmarks in comparison.

Within minutes, one can see that Wright understood all of this. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has a kaleidoscopic, kinetic mise-en-scène to shame the previous example of mainstream sensory overload, the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer. A mash-up of video games, action movies, frenzied electropop, comic book drawings that blend American styles with manga and everything else that occurs to Wright, the film borders on the avant-garde in its visualization of the modern worldview. You cannot focus not because you're dumber than your parents but because you have access to all the world's information simultaneously. The Internet's capacity for storage and real-time access may well be the equivalent to hearing God's voice, an endless void of knowledge and power suddenly forced into a gray, mushy bundle of synapses and nerves that cannot handle the strain. Much of the comedy of the film and the comic series comes from Scott's perennial inability to retain anything, but that's not because he's an idiot but because his hard drive simply crashed.

The first thing you should know about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that it is funny. Damn funny. As Gene Siskel once raved about Kingpin, every time it wants you laugh, it will make you do so. Visual gags litter the screen, from hipster-flecked title cards to sidebars indicating characters' ages, coolness ratings and fun facts. This is a film where the protagonist goes to the bathroom, and his bladder capacity is shown via a "Pee Bar" that drains as the young man urinates. We even see his thoughts visualized as a roulette wheel that spins through a series of excuses to give to his girlfriend and what appears to be a voltmeter that jumps from "No Clue" to "Gets It" when something finally sinks into Scott's thick skull.

When we meet Scott, he's a 22-year-old nobody who plays bass in a band he cheerfully admits is terrible, showing up for gigs that may or may not pay and not bothering to support himself with anything so ridiculous as a "job." His bandmates -- ex-girlfriend Kim Pine (Alison Pill, so frosty that the constant snowfall in the film's Toronto setting may be her mental projection), bandleader/only person with any emotional attachment to the group whatsoever Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and hanger-on Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), whom no one can consistently recognize despite the band's practice room being his apartment -- are just as shiftless. When Scott brags at the beginning of his new girlfriend, a pure-as-the-driven-snow Chinese-Canadian named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), only Kim has much to say, and all of it about how she's only 17 (and a Catholic schoolgirl, no less).

His short-lived quasi-romance ends, however, when he sees a strange, roller-skating woman in his dreams with hot pink hair, a seemingly innocuous occurrence until Scott begins to spot her in real-life. Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is too cool for Scott -- so is Knives, frankly, but Ramona has the added points of being hip and from America -- but he manages to win her over and enters into a new-new relationship that seems great. Until a strange Indian man crashes a band gig and challenges Scott to a fight for Ramona's hand, that is.

In cramming the six graphic novels of the comic series into just under two hours, Wright devotes most of the film to these battles with the League of Evil Exes, seven specters from Ramona's past who make normal ordeals with dealing with partner's exes seem trivial in comparison. Because so much of the movie involves various fights, Scott Pilgrim can feel repetitive, or at least it could have if Wright hadn't been in charge. Understanding the need to keep things fresh, Wright brings something different to each fight: one plays as a sort of dance-off, another a competition between bassists, yet another as a fight with an action star (Chris Evans) who forces Scott to fight all of his stunt doubles. Each fight has its own moves, unique color palettes and a host of contextual jokes that don't let the humor flag for a second.

From a writing standpoint, the percentage of one-liners that land with precision accuracy in this film is stunning. Rare is the film that can make a decently filled theater laugh incessantly, but the barrage of Scott's vacuous incredulity, Kim's venomous put-downs, Ramona's bemused observations and the contributions of everyone else ensure that every scene, even the more serious ones, get at least one good chuckle. Characters rarely speak for longer than a sentence or two, reflecting a generation raised to express themselves in 140 characters or less, and poor Knives' face even turns into a shocked emoticon when her musical heroine (and Scott's conniving ex-girlfriend) comes to town.

Everything about the film, in fact, plays off of the idea of a generation prescribed ADHD medication en masse. Film courses could and should use Scott Pilgrim to demonstrate match cuts, as the opening arc of the film jumps time and place as conversations continue seamlessly, noting how little Scott ever seems to remember and how often you just seem to end up where you were going without processing the journey there. Reality breaks apart more often (and with more oneiric an atmosphere) than in Inception, with Scott slipping in and out of dreams, walking through eerily pitch-black, snow-covered Toronto streets and surrounding by flying streaks of onomatopoeic letters whisking about for telephone rings, landed punches and the rarely changing D chord he pounds out of his Rickenbacker. Wright's usual trickery slips into the film, such as his penchant for using his quickest edits for the most banal moments, ridiculing the action movie conceit of the superhero suiting up by quickly showing Scott zipping up and slipping on armbands and then arduously drawing out the boy tying his shoe until it becomes the funniest bit in the film. In one instance, Scott returns to the apartment he shares with his roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin, playing Middle America's worst nightmare as a gay man who can instantly seduce heterosexuals with his charm), and Wright plays a sitcom laugh track over it, recalling its usage in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, previously the most daring and experimental mainstream feature on the market. Incidentally, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage purportedly loved Stone's deliberately overcooked satire, and the influence of Brakhage creeps in here too, with an opening credits played over jarring and jittering displays of pure color and a devil-may-care attitude toward traditional film grammar.

Beneath the rambunctious battle sequences and the endless one-liners, however, is that same empathy that powers Wright's previous efforts. While not as prominent as in Shaun of the Dead or Spaced, the heart of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is as vital to the film's memorability as its gleeful destruction of whatever boundaries still existed for action films. The entire arc of the film concerns Scott's growth from a listless twentysomething who cannot process anything other than his own desires into someone finally reading to accept maturity. Ramona, too, has an uncertainty about life she needs to figure out, and while Scott has a right to be indignant when she sums up their relationship by saying, "You're what I need right now," he doesn't understand that she's just as confused as he is. As I approach the end of my collegiate years, I understand these feelings: you think college will prepare you for life, then you leave and realize that, even if you excelled, you spent 4-6 years with routine breaks between classes, nap times, endless trips to coffee houses, partying. I'll go into the job market less prepared for a full 9-5 occupation than I would have been after high school with its rigid scheduling. These young men and women reached some imaginary border and were told, "Now you're adults!" and then cast into the void, and they don't know what to make of it. If their journey looks flashier than ours, it's no less daunting.

Nary a hair is out of place in the film. Michael Cera's presence has been a sticking point for many I've spoken to, citing Cera burnout, but he works in charm in a way he hasn't before: Scott Pilgrim is once entirely innocent and incredible corrupt, so attention-deficit that he cannot really remember how many people he's actually hurt -- in a way, he recalls the amnesiac Leonard from Memento. Winstead finds a similar balance, never apologizing for her life but not remotely proud of it either, and the fact that she's more clearheaded than Scott only makes her sadder and more filled with regret. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, from Culkin's incessant witticisms to Pill's bitter musings to Aubrey Plaza's foul-mouthed Julie ("Has Issues," as a bit of text helpfully explains) and Anna Kendrick's lovable bitchiness as Scott's Sister. Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and more make for film villains, all with enough personal and physical differences to prevent the lineup of Evil Exes from feeling samey; Schwartzman in particular hasn't been this hilariously smug since perhaps Rushmore. Wong deserves to break into some other work, effortlessly conveying Knives' naïveté and overall sweetness and playing off young actors with years more experience without once flagging.

Remarkably, they all understand what the story is really about as much as Wright does. Only just in their own adulthood, the actors realize that we all spend our youths trying to find our identity through movies or the Internet, objects that are paradoxically shared experiences even though we process them alone (and I loved the moment where a character says something witty and Scott asks, "What's that from?" expecting a movie title, only for the other to spit, "My brain!"). Then, we enter into relationships, but they're not yet serious because we're feeling our way around new territory. Only when we finally expand our perspectives to wonder how the other people in our lives see us do we ever figure ourselves out. This is a revelation more thoroughly covered in the comics, but the beauty of Wright's film is how deftly he manages to fit the core of this theme into a movie that could easily have been two hours of flashy nothingness. Instead, he mixes the avant-garde with the tangible, crafting his most frenzied genre mash-up yet but never losing sight of the heart that gives it meaning, and even the seriousness adds to the exhilaration of one of the most purely enjoyable films in years.


  1. Your reviews are so thorough! I had to stop myself before I read to much. I haven't seen Scott Pilgrim yet, but I will be seeing it this weekend and didn't want to get to ahead of myself.

  2. Well, the movie is indeed great. I love the bass battle part between Scott and Todd. And I don't find it redundant to watch this movie a few times - it's really that good.