Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Jason Schwartzman
Release Date: August 13, 2010

Rating:



Watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the admirably-made film by Edgar Wright I couldn’t help but feel the tension caused by compression. The character arcs felt truncated through omission, and this is coming from someone who’s only read part of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original series. Scott and Ramona get to where they’re supposed to in the story with admirable efficiency thanks to a healthy mix of the script and performances by Winstead and Cera, but the world around them – the other characters and interactions feel short-changed somehow.

But allow me to back up, for a bit and consider the movie at a distance. It is, of course, the adaptation to the well-received series of graphic novels of Canadian writer and artist Bryan Lee O’Malley and it follows the ups and downs of the relationship between the titular slacker and emotionally-bruised new girl in town, Ramona Flowers. As you probably know from the ubiquitous advertising, the only way Scott can date dream girl Ramona is by defeating her Seven Evil Exes.

Director and screenwriter Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is more than up to the challenge of porting the events of the book to the screen, injecting the proceedings with the requisite energy and humor. To keep the events moving along and avoiding getting bogged down he employees a frenetic, almost whiplash-inducing style of cuts and transitions. This last part allows Wright to remain faithful to the tone of encountering the story in its original printed form without being slavish to the exact panels from the book. One thing the movie can never be accused of is being trapped in amber like say, Watchmen*, and the constant movement from cut to cut and action onwards has the net effect of creating an energetic reaction which keeps the experience alive.

Consider the initial scenes of Scott’s tentative “dating” of high schooler Knives Chau (Wong), and how Wright handles them: Wright cuts through action and lines of dialog as Knives and Scott roam Toronto and get to know one another, actual conversations are bisected or chopped unevenly between the cuts. The total effect is one of forward momentum while still simulating the individual comic panels and progressing the relationship (at least the narrow confines of it) between the two characters. Wright actually twins these scenes with later ones where Scott realizes his disaffection from Knives after he’s met Ramona. Interestingly, the cuts here happen at a more rapid pace, perhaps hinting that it’s easier to fall out of “like” than into it.

Besides the technical proficiency, Wright has assembled a fine to excellent cast that embody the catalog of anxiety and neuroses of the characters from the books. Winstead and Cera in particular match the wounded-ness of coming off of different ends of bad breakups. Cera’s Scott was dumped over a year before by Envy Adams (Brie Larson) who’s moved on with a new boyfriend and rock superstardom, so Scott responds by jumping into something uncomplicated with Knives where he’s in control. Scott is a picture of simplicity that unfolds over time to show complicated, emotions beneath the surface. He’s hiding behind simplicity because he’s tried and trying can be hard. Ramona is going through something similar, and over time Scott begins to suspect that he’s the “something uncomplicated” in that particular equation.

Appearances to the contrary, Cera excels outside of his comfort zone here, avoiding a variation of his character George Michael from Arrested Development. We suspect that Scott isn’t particularly deep at the start of the film and by the end we realize that his problem is that he’s too far in his own head to deal with his life. Cera achieves this by playing Scott more or less as willfully clueless – it’s obvious that he’s done some real damage in the past but he’s trying really hard not to face up to it.

Winstead sidesteps the pitfalls of a character like Ramona who could either come across as either an idealized dream girl like Elizabethtown’s Kirsten Dunst or as a fickle, unlikeable bitch like Zooey Daschenel’s (500) Days of Summer character. If there’s a word that sums up her Ramona, it’s internal: like Scott, the real Ramona is hidden but in her case behind a layer of disaffection. Sometimes real hints of sadness poke through: she’s genuinely sad that Scott has to deal with all of her emotional baggage and it’s really only a countdown before she inevitably bails for both their sakes.

Still, I keep returning to that sense of compression that afflicts the movie. Scott and Ramona get to where they need to be admirably, but that same virtuoso style of forward propulsion I lauded the film for earlier is actually to the detriment of their relationship (and other relationships in the film). The sense that this is all happening over a couple of days in the characters’ lives makes the emotions feel a little rushed. The break-ups, make-ups, fights, and whatever else lose a little weight because, I don’t know, the characters feel a little flighty?

Before you defend it, yes, I know Wright has created a highly-stylized world and a lot of the emotional content is handled in what I like to think of as a hyperlinked style, using the video game**, anime, and yes, comic signifiers to make the subtext the actual text. I totally get it and much of the time, it works and sometimes it just didn’t. It felt like (and this is tricky to communicate) some of the emotions remained unprocessed by either me or the film. Knives and Envy specifically felt incomplete somehow and the tensions between Scott and Ramona are ratcheted up so quickly that it’s as though the characters barely had time to get to like each other before they fell out of it.

I’m reading here and there that Scott Pilgrim will be a generational movie, but I’m not so sure. I think it has a lot of signifiers in it from my youth and there’s universality to the emotions but those same emotions feel unfinished and not completely articulated, to such a degree that I can’t imagine someone else getting their own swell of emotion, their own elation when thinking about it 10 or 20 years hence. I actually plan on seeing the movie again (today, actually) so that I can look at it again – if I have any amended thoughts, I’ll be sure to post them here. But it feels like Inception, which I still haven’t resolved in my mind, Scott Pilgrim is more of a finished conversation for me, and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it’s one for the ages.

*Which I continue to think has more to recommend it than it has going against it. Still, the net experience fails because director Zack Snyder wasn’t more aggressive in making choices of omission, instead attempting to get in as much as possible for the sake of fidelity.

**One of my pet peeves in several otherwise well-written reviews of the movie has been the insistence that the gaming element is reflective of arcade culture. In truth, O’Malley’s comics and the film trade on 8 and 16-bit era imagery.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at his blog Monster In Your Veins.

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