8/13/10

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley (which I have not read), is a geek heaven love/video-game duel story which rocks and rolls, references everything computer-y and pop-cultural and mostly works. If you have lived through any of the past twenty or thirty years of media geeking out--over cinema, music, comic books, video games--you will probably laugh, recognize the film's palette and have a great time.

You already know from reading the graphic novels, or at least from the trailers, that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, very good) has kind of a unique problem. He likes Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, also very good), but dating her is a little complicated. She has "seven evil exes" who are determined to fight and kill anybody who wants to try dating her. This is a metaphor.

Scott already has some issues. He's in transition, 22 and living in a small apartment in Toronto filled with stuff he doesn't own with his "gay roommate" (as it is frequently stated) Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), playing in a band, Sex Bob-omb, with an ex-girlfriend and more friends and "dating a high schooler" (also frequently repeated), Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). And Scott has some iffy exes of his own.

Scott meets Ramona in a dream, wakes up and apologizes (literally). Times with Knives are fun, but he senses destiny calling in the form of this American delivery girl with punky hair. He really likes that punky hair. He bumps into her in real life a few times, and finally scores a date and her digits.

Ending things with Knives isn't so easy, but before long Scott and Ramona are officially dating, which also marks the beginning of the official notifications of impending duels Scott must fight with the exes. I don't really want to ruin the order, delivery or outcomes of any of the duels, as they make up the bulk of the film and rely on surprises, hidden layers of meaning and humor and work well. But I can say a few things. My favorite ex is played by Brandon Routh, and his part plays off of his recent notable roles. He's very good. Most of the duels are A+ affairs, visually and metaphorically. The one exception might be the Katayanagis, who don't register much, but that duel is still fun to watch.

The whole cast is dedicated and working at a high level, making possible conflicts between the acting and an effects-heavy story no real concern. Cera, Winstead, Culkin, Wong and Routh are stand-outs, but even more minor characters like those played by Anna Kendrick as Scott's sister, Alison Pill as Kim, Sex Bob-omb's drummer, Mark Webber as Stephen Stills, "the talent" of Sex Bob-omb, and Aubrey Plaza (Funny People) as Julie are sketched well and amusingly. (Where's our Aubrey Plaza starrer, Judd Apatow? You're late.) Johnny Simmons (Jennifer's Body) as Young Neil deserves his own sentence of praise, since despite having a minor role and existing along the edges, he delivers a clever supporting turn which brought to mind for me Brad Pitt as Floyd in True Romance or De Niro as Louis Gara in Jackie Brown. Dude is in character, and quite effective. An indie music soundtrack with video-game computer music (and more good music) interspersed accompany the action vividly.

Reservations? I've got a few. While the film works moment to moment, there is a very slight sense of hollowness which, I'll admit, may have been unavoidable given the way the story is told. Everything's "media-ted," and that does create emotional distance. I can't say exactly how I might have tried to avoid that, maybe it's not even necessary, part of the point. "Pilgrim" should make you think of John Wayne, and yes, also John Bunyan, video game nerds. The key metaphor generally comes across without being hokey because of the wealth of idiosyncratic detail.

I also felt some of the female characters were given somewhat short shrift, but a similar counterargument could be made that this is common in the geek world, again, part of the point. I didn't detect a particularly intelligent comment along those lines being made, however. And a few seemingly anti-Chinese comments seem wildly out of place. Despite being uttered by an evil character, and a character trying to think of something, maybe anything to say in an awkward situation, they're a bit jarring exactly as handled. The movie's not racist or filled with offensive slurs by any stretch, but if you're looking to identify with some fully realized non-white or non-male characters, maybe wander into another theater. This is one of the whitest, malest movies ever, but fortunately seemingly mostly out of immaturity, and not in a troubling supremacist sort of way.

That said, if you've got any interest in seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you have my recommendation. It's more than the sum of its parts, it's very smart and entertaining despite some minor flaws. Nice work Edgar Wright and all. There's a lot of priceless talent on display here. I've seen it twice and may do again.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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