Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Adaptations of adult aimed comic books have generally had 2 levels of quality: Really good and really bad, with very little in between. On the really good side we have things like 300, Sin City and Kick-Ass. On the really bad side we have Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Wanted. So it's understandable that geeks of distinction are generally fairly nervous whenever a well reviewed adult aimed comic is made into a film, such as when we heard Shaun of the Dead director was doing a film version of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, though to be fair at the time I saw the movie, I'd only read the first 2 volumes. It's alright, since the result is pretty damn good.

The plot is devoted to the titular Scott Pilgrim, an almost-hipster geek living in Ontario. He's an interesting character, not least because he's actually something of a douchebag. He falls fast and hard for a girl named Ramona. Of course since the alternate world version of Ontario is running off video game rules and even a random guy like Scott is a full blown martial artist, it turns out Ramona has 7 evil exes that Scott has to battle in order to date her.

I should point out, in all honesty, that the fact that Pilgrim is a bit of a jackass is something that had to be accentuated for me. This is because, without going into detail, if I were informed tomorrow that Brian Lee O'malley (the writer of the comics, since I neglected to mention that) was a lifelong friend of mine and Scott had been based, in broad strokes, off my romantic history, I wouldn't be particularly surprised. Therefore Scott is, on a metaphorical level, me and to quote one of my favorite episodes of Futurama: “I can't stay mad at what is essentially me. I love me.”

That, by the by, is what makes Scott Pilgrim a worthwhile story, not only that the people in them seem like fully realized people (with maybe a couple more comedy screenwriters working for them, but meh) but also that, including the big video game action scenes, the film is a serious rumination on emotions and relations. Much of the action, especially in the 3rd act, is an active metaphor for character relations and their emotions. But then, that was there in the comic.

On the purely movie side of things, both the director and screenwriters are doing their job well. Cinematography works solidly, especially in large crowd sequences (I'm going to skip over Shaun of the Dead references to their fantastic crowd work) and the fight scenes are well done and exciting. On the acting side of things it's one of those ironic movies where the lead actor/s are doing the worst job. Not that Michael Cera (who I've hated in everything else, yes even movies I liked otherwise) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are doing a bad job. Just that the actors playing Scott's gay roommate Wallace, his slightly obsessive underage ex Knives Chau (no really) and his other ex the more-than-slightly tomboyish drummer Kim who seems to be channelling Janis Joplin by way of Joan Jett are doing better jobs.

The video-game vibe both and works and doesn't. While it forces everyone to cut down heavily on the subtly of the metaphors, it leads to some spectacular fight scenes. It's up for debate whether it turns off outsiders (I'm not an outsider, can't comment). What I CAN say is that with the video game references and their freedom to play fast-and-loose with plot and character motivation, the film is lining itself up for a cult classic, which usually has to happen organically. I can also say that as cult classics go it's aiming to be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and ends up closer to The Big Lebowski (not as good as Lebowski but there you go.)

There are some issues, primarily centered around translation. Firstly, it was a mistake to try and fit all 7 evil exes into one movie was something of a mistake and as a result, the entire film feels rather rushed. There's a logical stopping point and a solid amount for a 'Matrix Reloaded-Revolution' style sequel which would give everyone more time to think and develop. There's also an overall problem with subtly and dialogue. To use an example from early on having Scott yell out during a dream “I'm so lonely,” might work fine in a comic, but in a movie it grates more than a little. Finally the metaphors get to be embarassingly unsubtle towards the end, but that's forgivable I guess.

At the end of the day, the movie Scott Pilgrim most resembles (in the recent past) is the underrated 2009 comedy The Men who Stare at Goats. It's not a classic or a phenomena waiting to happen. It's a nice story, well written that is both funny and exciting. It moves at a nice clip, never once gets boring and does not wear out it's welcome. It has some in jokes for us geeks and some intellectual commentary that is bubbling under the surface which adds some much needed thinking to it. Due to the massssively poor crop of movies this year, it might actually manage to worm it's way onto my top 10 of the year, though that would be less on its own merits and more due to the lack of quality of all the other things.

Alas I know this review comes too late. The film is almost out of theaters and nothing I can say or do can stop it from being a box office dud. Oh well, some good movies are (Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.) But if it's still playing near you, I urge you to see it. Meanwhile, I'll be here drumming my fingers and waiting for December and True Grit. See you next time

Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he should really try to see movies as they come out, rather than a month later.

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