Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures, Marc Platt Productions, Big Talk Productions, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our film last night was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which for some reason I thought was a Percy Jackson and the Olympians-style story about a (relatively) normal kid who suddenly has to develop or cultivate super-powers to defeat some horrible menace from an alien world. It turned out to be a much more creative film than that, a young-man-comes-of-age story that also managed to be an aspiring rock band story on the order of Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains and the more recent The Runaways — and it also managed to be the only film I’ve seen that managed to reflect and spoof the culture of video games instead of either outright adapting a video-game storyline to film or doing a typical sports-movie trope about video game players.

From the opening sequence, in which the current Universal logo theme is heard in the style of a cheap video game soundtrack — and the logo itself is seen in the lousy eight-bit resolution of an old-fashioned video game, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is refreshingly irreverent towards life, love, teen angst movies, video games, rock bands, vegans and everything else that fits within its compass. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, the kid who became a star knocking up Ellen Page in Juno) isn’t a kid, really, though he’s still behaving like one; he’s 22, he’s “between jobs” (that’s what he tells us) and he also plays guitar and bass in an aspiring rock band called Sex Bob-Omb whose red-haired (female) drummer, Kim Pine (Allison Pill), once had an affair with him and is still carrying the torch — only he dumped her for singer Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who left him just as her band, The Clash at Demonhead, suddenly landed a record contract and became successful.

That happened a year before the film begins, and Scott has remained mired in the past by refusing to have his hair professionally cut — instead he does it himself — and is currently seeing a 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl (this film takes place in Toronto, which for once in a U.S. movie actually plays itself rather than impersonating a U.S. city) called Knives Chau. Not that they’ve done anything sexual — or even that much physical besides holding hands and an occasional closed-lips kiss — but the people around Scott, including his sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), strongly disapprove of him dating a high-school girl. Scott lives in a ratty studio apartment with a Gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who’s clearly having better luck with his love (or at least sex) life than Scott is, since he’s constantly asking Scott to vacate the premises so he can entertain his latest fuck buddy — and at one point he even seduces Stacey Pilgrim’s boyfriend Jimmy (Kjartan Hewitt) away from her.

As for Scott, he’s instantly ready to dump Knives when he sees a spectacular apparition in pink hair who turns out to be Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he falls in love (or at least lust) with at first sight — only she comes with a big piece of heavy-duty baggage: she has seven ex’es and Scott must do battle to the death with all of them before he can have Ramona. This sets up a series of video-game style confrontations with the various ex’es — not all of whom, much to Scott’s surprise, are male (when he confronts Ramona’s former girlfriend, Ramona explains, “I was Bi-curious,” whereupon Scott replies, “I’m Bi-furious!”) — including a bizarre pair of twins who lead a synth band that battles Scott’s group in a round of the battle-of-the-bands contest around which much of the plot revolves, as well as Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the legendary record producer who’s going to sign the winner of the battle of the bands and is pretty clearly made up to look like the young Phil Spector.

After ragging on Inception because it offered no contact with the real world and was so arbitrarily plotted, it seems odd that I should have liked a movie whose plotting was just as arbitrary, but I did because Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright (who also co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall — any relation? — based on a series of “graphic novels,” i.e. book-length comic books, by Bryan Lee O’Malley) managed to keep us emotionally identified with Scott and his struggle essentially to grow up no matter how many fantastic elements the plot threw in his path. I can see why this movie became a cult favorite among certain critics (included whoever does the “underrated/overrated” feature in the Los Angeles Times Calendar, who definitely put this movie in the “underrated” category), and also why it was a failure at the box office: it’s so relentlessly genre-bending one gets the impression it’s the kind of movie Preston Sturges would be making if he were alive and working now, a mad jumble of coming-of-age, rock-band-wrestles-with-selling-out and life-is-just-a-video-game tropes that manages to be more entertaining, not less, than the sum of its parts (though I found the ending a bit unsatisfying — I think Scott ended up with the wrong girl at the closing credits), and it’s also clear that Wright and his collaborators don’t overestimate the importance of their tale: instead of the High Seriousness with which a lot of kids’ fantasies get told in the movies today (can you say The Dark Knight?), Scott Pilgrim is written and directed with a refreshing awareness of its own triviality. It’s a wild movie but one that works on just about every level it’s intended to.