Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Chaos Rules

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) • View trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for loopy violence, mild sensuality and drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.13.10
Buy the DVD: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World • Buy Blu-Ray: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

The lunatics aren't just running this particular asylum; they've obviously infiltrated civilized society. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is as deranged a fantasy as I've seen in awhile, and that's no small statement. Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels are pretty out there to begin with, and director Edgar Wright  who with Michael Bacall also adapted the material  has retained the wild 'n' crazy exaggeration while pushing the outer boundaries of conventional filmmaking. 
Wanting only to help his garage band qualify for a competitive play-off, Scott
Pilgrim (Michael Cera, center) is astonished when a menacing stranger literally
drops from nowhere onto the stage, and then attacks him. This would be "Evil
Ex No. 1," the first of seven lunatic ordeals Scott must face, thanks to his
rising interest in a mysterious girl with cotton-candy hair.

Pushing? No, that's not strong enough. Wright and Bacall have punched through completely, delivering an eye-popping hybrid that's equal parts movie, comic book and video game. The colorful result is entertaining and bewildering by turns, although ultimately undone by a running time that's at least 20 minutes too long. 

Mere mortals can safely absorb only so much ferocious intensity. 

At its core, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is just another saga of youthful angst and unrequited love. Or, more precisely, love that has been requited a bit too frequently, with painful consequences. It's a familiar tale: boy meets the girl of his dreams  in this case, literally  but finds the path to her heart rather complicated. 

That this timeworn scenario unfolds in the Day-Glo, smash-thud universe of comic book sensibilities is, in Wright's view, merely an acknowledgment of an ordinary nerd's tendency to over-dramatize and succumb to his hyperactive imagination. "When teens or twentysomethings describe the events of a night out," Wright explains, in his press notes, "they're usually blown out of all proportion." 

And so, as a result, is Wright's film. 

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera at his whiny, self-deprecating best) is between jobs and filling time as the bass guitarist for a slacker garage band dubbed Sex Bob-Omb. As befits a Cera character, the 22-year-old Scott has been pining too long for his former girlfriend, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who abandoned the band and hit it big on her own. 
Scott's inability to man up and move on has become a source of annoyance to his exasperated younger sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick); his roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin); and bandmates Kim (Alison Pill), Stephen (Mark Weber) and hanger-on "Young Neil" (Johnny Simmons). 

And the worst aspect of Scott's self-pitying martyrdom? He's dating a 17-year-old high school student  Ellen Wong, as Knives Chau  who's in serious need of some age-appropriate cultural infusions. She's clueless about the current music scene, and therefore embraces Sex Bob-Omb with the embarrassing, fanatical devotion of the newly converted. 

Knives' similar adulation of Scott proves troublesome when he spots the elusive, mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose cool aloofness is somewhat at odds with her hair, which can go from bright pink and purple to blue. Despite badly fumbling his usual lame pick-up line, Scott somehow retains Ramona's attention and secures a sorta-kinda-date that blossoms into a sorta-kinda-relationship. 

Problem No. 1: Scott has neither informed Knives nor broken up with her. He can't stand the thought of shmooshing her young heart. 

Problem No. 2: Ramona has serious baggage in the form of seven "evil exes" who, having caught wind of Scott's interest in her, are gathering to kill him. 

Problem No. 3: They all have super powers. 

But oh, wait ... so does Scott! 

One must approach what follows with the raised eyebrow reserved for a fisherman who boasts of the hours required to land an 8-foot marlin, but returns home with a 3-inch minnow. On one level, it would appear that Scott's increasingly crazed death-matches take place in the 'real' world, since his various friends witness these bouts with wide-eyed, slack-jawed amazement. 

On the other hand, Wright leaves enough wiggle-room to suggest that perhaps Scott simply dreams the whole thing ... up to and including Ramona's very existence. 

But I'd rather not go that way, because it's not nearly as much fun. 

The film indulges in a bit of stunt casting with the exes, the most memorable of whom is played by recent Superman Brandon Routh, cast here as an albino blond power bassist who gets his prodigious strength from a strict vegan diet. Chris Evans, soon to star as Captain America, pops up as another ex, a rugged pro skateboarder turned Hollywood action star (hey ... it could happen!), while Jason Schwartzman is saved for the climax, as the evilest of all the exes. 

Although this whacked-out storyline has its own loopy delights, the film gets the bulk of its humor from the frequent use of text and animation "sweeteners" to augment a scene. The big-screen version of 'Sin City' flirted with such technique, but Wright goes whole-enchilada; you'll be hard-pressed to find a scene here that isn't digitally enhanced. 

This can range from small, cute touches, such as the wafting pink hearts that accompany a tentative kiss, to elaborate life-size swords of solid light, the better to smash a snarling opponent. The best inserts, though, are the snarky text boxes that pop up to refute or elaborate on something Scott says or thinks. Some of these whiz past so quickly that it's difficult to take them in, as with the labels that distinguish the cool stuff belonging to Wallace, in their shared apartment, from the loser stuff owned by Scott. 

We've come a long, long way since those bam!/pow! balloons from the 1960s Batman TV show. 

That said, Adam West and Burt Ward would have been right at home with this film's extremely campy tone. 

Smash-cut edits are employed to similar effect, again generally for a laugh. When somebody comments on Scott's ratty hair cut  one of his many sensitive issues  he'll suddenly be wearing a pullover cap the next time the camera pans in his direction. His T-shirts have an equally unusual tendency to change in mid-scene, and you'll never know what to expect from Ramona's hair. 

Cera seems comfortable with the degree to which he has become typecast; no doubt he's cheerfully willing to keep taking these mild-mannered, lovelorn dweeb parts, as long as they're being offered. (Thankfully, he's no longer trying to play teenagers.) He doesn't add anything that we haven't already seen in Juno, Superbad and Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, but his flustered ineptitude continues to be funny. 

In short, we haven't tired of Cera's reflexive shtick yet, although I imagine that day will come. 

Winstead has the necessary presence  and slightly mocking gaze  to make Ramona properly mysterious: precisely the sort of unattainable icon of fetching young womanhood that somebody like Scott would consider way out of his league, but would pursue no less persistently. 

Pill is a stitch as the straight-faced Kim, who never cracks a smile when delivering her most merciless put-downs. Aubrey Plaza, one of the brighter ingredients from last summer's otherwise lamentable Funny People, is similarly funny as Stephen's foul-mouthed girlfriend, Julie, who keeps warning Scott not to get involved with Ramona. 

Wong is simply hilarious as the hopelessly smitten Knives, whose tin-eared outbursts of affection (deliberately) strike wincingly sour notes, even in this outrageously overstated atmosphere. 

Culkin, although he gets off to a rocky start, eventually turns Wallace into a demon one-liner delivery system. Perhaps more crucially, Wallace is refreshingly, unapologetically gay in a way that's funny without being demeaning or clicheed. Indeed, his character's matter-of-fact gender preference  and those of similar characters in other contemporary youth comedies  are doing a lot to help transform the gay rights movement from a political hot potato to no big deal. 

All this said, this film's whole is less than the sum of its parts. Some folks bolted 15 minutes into a preview screening a few weeks back; I'm sure they couldn't reach the exit quickly enough. Conservative viewers will have a great poster child to support their belief that Hollywood doesn't make decent movies any more, and they may have a point; I'm not sure Scott Pilgrim qualifies as a "movie." 

And despite Wright's gonzo directorial flourishes and unabashed joie de vivre, I can't call his flick better than a guilty pleasure. 

On the other hand, young viewers welded to their iPods, iPhones and other modern gadgets will love-love-love this nonsense. Judging by the cheers that also greeted the conclusion of that same preview screening, plenty of folks will turn this into a summer smash. 

It happens that way occasionally. Some youth-oriented films break the age barrier; Juno is a good recent example. Others merely illustrated the yawning chasm of the generation gap; Harold and Maude was famous for this, decades back, and Napoleon Dynamite did the same a few years ago. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World absolutely belongs in their company. 

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