August 10, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

ACTION/COMEDY:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-08-13

Running Length:

1:55

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Brandon Routh, Alison Pill, Jason Schwartzman, Ellen Wong

Director:

Edgar Wright

Screenplay:

Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright, based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Cinematography:

Bill Pope

Music:

Nigel Godrich

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


It does not follow that a parody has to be funny but, in the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the humor is there. A clever send-up of comic book and video games (circa 1990), this movie illustrates that writer/director Edgar Wright can rise to the next level. His two "straightforward" satires, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which were co-created with Simon Pegg, were uneven but enjoyable. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, however, is more ambitious and outlandish. It's bizarre and surprising and revels in its absurdity. It's one of those movies that pokes fun good-naturedly at material clearly understood by the filmmakers; the men and women behind Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (and the graphic novel upon which it is based) include too many Easter Eggs and inside jokes to claim ignorance. At the same time, however, it manages to fashion a likeable central character and prod viewers to care about what happens to him. Without that element, the still too-long production would have worn out its welcome after about 30 minutes.

As the movie opens, we have no idea that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) and his friends don't live in our world. The first thing we learn about the protagonist is that he's dating a high school girl, the 17-year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Their relationship is chaste - they have not kissed, although they once came close to holding hands. Scott seems like a loser, but it's difficult to say whether or not he's a bigger loser than the other musicians comprising the band for which he plays bass. Then, one night at a party, he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and that's when we begin to suspect that Scott's reality might not be the same as ours.

There's an almost immediate connection between Scott and Ramona, but dating Ramona involves more than showering her with "flowers, chocolates, and promises you don't intend to keep." Instead, he has to defeat all seven of her exes in single combat, with each of those battles playing out like real-life video games. Defeating an ex provides Scott with coins, points, occasionally a power-up, and (if he accumulates a high enough tally) the possibility of an extra life. Each victory gets him closer to the boss battle, where victory will allow him to stroll into the sunset with Ramona and defeat will earn him the epitaph of "Ramona's nicest ex."

One senses that the more familiarity the viewer has with video games (especially those from the late 1980s and early 1990s) and comic books, the more he or she will appreciate what Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has to offer. It is, after all, about a geeky kid who lives out his life in a world governed not by the laws of physics but by the laws of Nintendo and Marvel/DC. The battles ignore things like gravity, with characters leaping into the air and confronting each other with blazing swords and unexpected superpowers. Their clashes play out like the fights in the '60s Batman TV show on speed, complete with words like "pow", "bam", and "crash" scrawled across the screen. In fact, there's a lot of animated doodling enhancing the live action throughout the film.

The comedy is light and airy and includes several laugh-aloud moments. The violence is highly stylized and will draw significantly less fire than Kick-Ass, a harder-edged satire that riffed on some of the same things. The lampoons don't stop with comics and games, either. One sequence is designed as a take-off on TV sit-coms, using the Seinfeld theme music and adding a laugh track. Wright also has fun with profanity. To bring the movie in at a PG-13 level, he comes up with an amusing way to censor the word "fuck" without eliminating it. At the same time, he pokes fun at what Warner Brothers did with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a little too long. High energy comedies like this typically lose steam once they pass the 90-minute mark, and this is no exception. One thing that keeps us involved, however, is that we care about Scott, his relationship with Ramona, and the curious triangle that develops with Knives as the third vertex. The human element isn't as soft and mushy as in some of Judd Apatow's raunchy rom-coms, but the characters function as more than tree branches from which jokes are hung. The filmmakers show respect and affection for the protagonists, not contempt.

After a walk on the wild side in which he tried to display a degree of range (in Youth in Revolt), Michael Cera is back in a typecast part. Cera plays a variation of the same individual he has portrayed in his successful screen endeavors. Limiting though it may be, it fits him comfortably and it works - 30 years ago, Rick Moranis occupied this niche. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing in her second high-concept satire (the previous one being Sky High) provides an energetic contrast to the laid-back Cera. Ellen Wong recalls Rinko Kikuchi's hilarious turn in The Brothers Bloom, although she has a little more dialogue. Superheroes Brandon Routh (Superman) and Chris Evans (Captain America) have cameos as two of the exes alongside other recognizable names like Anna Kendrick (as Scott's sister), Kieran Culkin (as Scott's gay roommate), and Jason Schwartzman (as the end-game boss).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is more clever and insightful than it initially appears to be, and that's its central strength. The filmmakers show not only an awareness of the underlying pop culture influences, but an affinity for them, and this is the quality that imbues Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with its spirit and drive. This is not the first time Wright has shown his understanding for such things, nor is this the first occasion in which he has displayed a strong sense of comedic timing, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World feels fresher and more inspired than his previous outings, and that makes it an excellent source of late-summer entertainment.

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