Friday, September 3, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World vs. Scott Pilgrim

With my folks in town, thus babysitting made handily available, the wife and I finally made it out to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last night. I was looking forward to us getting out to a film (which we hadn't done in a long while... we're hoping to hit Inception later this weekend), and while I was hopeful for a good time with Scott Pilgrim, I wasn't exactly expecting it. I'm not really certain what I was expecting from the film, being a longtime Edgar Wright fan, but also given the generally positive (but not glowing) reviews, as well as the disappointing box office returns, and my own misgivings about Michael Cera in the lead role.

I liked the graphic novels enough - at times loved them, even - but I'm just not one of the fawning devotees to the series, and I've only given each volume the once-over (so far). In fact, I've had more than my fair share of conversations with the backlash contingent, and I can't help but consider their complaints towards the series in my own assessment of it. As well, being a Toronto set series (which is rare in popular culture), there'd been a literal media blitz locally discussing the end of the comic and the launch of the movie, hitting saturation point rather quickly, perhaps even tipping into overexposure. Thus, after finishing Volume 6 shortly before the film's arrival in theatres, my own response to the whole Scott Pilgrim phenomenon was confused and uncertain as was my enthusiasm for the film. Essentially, I wanted to see it just to say I had, and hopefully have an opinion on it, the comics and the phenomenon.

I can make this simple. About four or five minutes into the film, after a barrage of scene transitions and information deluge, with Knives Chow sitting bug-eyed on the couch next to Young Neil, and Kim Pine counting the band in, the scene's thrust into forced perspective as Sex Bob-omb bursts into a pulsating (digitally enhanced pulsating) rendition of whatever song it was Beck wrote for them to play, and I turned to my wife and said "I'm in love with this film."

As the opening credits played, I could have wept with joy. Though it only reached my ears and eyes, it was almost like I could taste, smell and feel the film (it tastes like maple fudge, smells like vanilla and feels like 600 thread-count linens). As the film flowed forth, spewing out its mishmash of romance, comedy, teenaged/twentysomething slacker angst, video game violence, and a spectacle of visual wonders I reconnected with the source material in my head, but not to measure them against one another, instead to revel in the joy I experienced with it once, and now again.

This is not to say that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a true adaptation of the comics, because it's not. They share the same spirit, they share the characters, they share some dialogue and trajectory, but the comics are Brian Lee O'Malley's vision 100% and the film is, like, 80% Edgar Wright's vision of that vision. In a way it's a bastardization, it truncates and expedites the story of Scott Pilgrim, but does so using a medium that is ripe with (potential) advantages over the comic book. Any story can be twisted and warped to fit any media, but it takes a true visionary in control of their form to make it work, and Edgar Wright is such a man. He didn't do it alone, naturally, but it's undoubtedly his minds eye that crafted this film, and it's monumental, something transformative, and, at present, unique. Like the glut of bad Tarantino knock-offs after Pulp Fiction, I don't look forward to seeing the poor man's versions of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that come down the line, all those hack directors to come that take "inspiration" from this film, but don't have background or talent or resources or conviction to pull it off.

If the poor box office performance of SPvsTW has a bright side it's that studios will be less willing to support derivative films, as well the pressure for a sequel is now mercifully off, thus, hopefully, preserving this film's uniqueness for a longer period of time.

If it sounds a little magnanimous, I know for a fact it is. I unabashedly had a great time watching this movie, laughing heartily throughout, but I recognize that this film isn't geared towards everyone and there will be some who just don't get it. That's fine. On top of that, I acknowledge that there are weaknesses in the film, that it's perhaps 10 mintues too long (though I can't think at all about what I would cut, it just feels that way), and the story is overly simplistic and its message perhaps a little muddy (many seem to define it by Scott and Ramona's romance, but it's truly about Scott's journey into maturity (or rather journey out of immaturity)).

Then there's the Michael Cera factor. If you're burnt out on Michael Cera, I don't blame you. The dude's been in at least two films a year for the past three years since Arrested Development ended playing variations of the same character, and Scott Pilgrim at first glance doesn't seem much different. To tell you the truth he's not. But Scott Pilgrim is a character unto himself, and Cera does inhabit him fully. He's not the exact same Scott from the comics, who seems to have an abundance of confidence in spite of himself, but Cera's Scott portrays the exact level of shallowness and lack of self-awareness the character needs, while also keeping the Cera-stammer (which, now that I think of it, isn't that far off from the Bob Newhart stammer) in check. What Cera brings to the role is a deft awareness of comedy and indeed comedic timing. So much of the comedy is a result of what Wright does in the editing room, but Cera's posture, his nuances, his facial expressions all have major contributions. Is he Scott Pilgrim? Hell yes, he's THIS Scott Pilgrim, and not Brian Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim. Also, Cera knows how to rock out, and even his ridiculously scrawny physique managed to cut an impressive action hero pose dozens of times throughout the movie.

Outside of Cera, every single member of the cast is perfect, with Johnny Simmons' Young Neil and Keiran Culkin's Wallace Wells being my favourite two interpretations side characters (my wife assured me that the only reason I disliked Anna Kendrick as Scott's sister Stacey is due to my utter contempt for Up In The Air). Scott battles both Superman (Brandon Routh in a delightfully anime douchebag vegan psychic warrior) and Captain America (Chris Evans as the gravelly-voiced box office egocentric superstar Lucas Lee), and Michael Cera even beats up his old Arrested Development girlfriend Mae Whitman (Her?), all of which adds weird little metatext to the proceedings.

As I noted, I'm not a scholar of the comics, and I'm sure the variations between the two entities are beyond numerous, but I don't even want to enter an academic contrast between the two. As far as I'm concerned, they're similar but separate entities. Forced to choose, however, I loved the movie immeasurably more than the comics. I suppose that it's unfair to pit millions of dollars in special effects against simplistic black and white line drawing, but life isn't fair. Special effects alone, however, don't mean a thing unless they're used properly and Wright's flourishes pop off the screen in a way O'Malley's purposefully 2-dimensional art never could. Throw in a ripping soundtrack, a handful of original Beck creations and metaphorically capturing the power of a live indie rock show and the contest is over.

Where O'Malley's series does have the advantage is in time, the ability to let the story and characters breathe (the audience, nevermind the characters, rarely has a chance to catch their breath with the film) and really get at the heart of Scott's transformation. Scott's growth in the film is almost there just because it has to be. The greatest contrast between the two, and the books biggest success comparatively (and perhaps it's just because it's fresh in my mind), is in the final act, Volume 6, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour which varies wildly from the movie and is, in fact, more grandiose in scale than the film achieves. That the sixth book wasn't even started by the time the film had begun shooting is the main cause for these variations, and while O'Malley provided Wright with an outline of where Volume 6 was going, Wright's interpretations of what the characters would do feels slightly out of synch (cinema Scott's lack of closure with Envy Adams is probably the most glaring omission). Wright still gets to the same end point as O'Malley, but it's not as beautiful.

The fact that the story was set in Toronto (where I've lived the past decade of my life) added a special little charge to the comic, but actually seeing Toronto represent "Toronto" in a major motion picture was a genuine thrill. For years Toronto has played the role of any number of American cities (doubling rather pathetically for New York in the Incredible Hulk for instance) so for the city to get its due was rather special, especially as it is brought to life as I've known it accurately by Wright and company.

There was a definite feeling of elation leaving the theatre, smiles amidst the dozens of faces exiting the seats. My immediate impulse was to watch it again. This is a special film, an experience to be sure, one that may not have set the box office alight, but one that will live on where the novelty of that film amassing 80's action heroes has since died. As a result, here we have an immediate cult sensation rather than the anticipated pop phenomenon, one that revival houses will delight in showing for years.

Are there better movies that have been released this year? For sure. Are there any that provide an experience that remotely compare to this one? None at all.


samax said...

I liked the comic a lot better than the movie (hey, I don't live in Toronto), but I agree with everything ELSE you said.

I'm not really sure why anyone expected this movie (based on a comic which is super-super-niche) to make a lot of money. The comic was (after all) an indie comic. Even if everyone who bought the book saw it seven times and brought a friend, it still wouldn't beat the summer competition.

It takes a lot more people to make a hit movie than a hit comic.

I said that to say, I hope everyone who wanted to see it saw it, and saw it again. I actually would rather mass audiences not watch it so I don't have to suffer through too many conversations with people who just don't get it (too late). Like you said, when this movie was wrapped, before either of us saw it, it was destined for cult-classic status. That's how it should be.

Evan said...

I heart this review.

The only comment I want to add: you mention this film not being geared to everyone, and I agree. But in three (thus far) trips to see this film, I've dragged a total of six very diverse movie goers, none of them the type this was geared for, and all of them left with that sense of elation you witnessed.

I think there's something very special about this film.