Thursday, August 19, 2010

Growing Pains

With seemingly endless visual invention and wit, Edgar Wright brings comic books and video games to vibrant life in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, an enjoyable if standard romantic comedy from a director who has proven in three features that he is amongst the great visual artists of his generation. Many, if not all, of Scott Pilgrim's finest moments are a result of Wright's spectacular use of audio/visual technique, as this strikes me as Wright's weakest feature yet - though Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were marketed as spoofs in the Brooks or Zucker mold, they were both piercing satires of class and British society, as well as explorations of genre worthy of De Palma. Conversely, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a fairly rigid satire of superhero movies - another in what feels like an endless line of post-modern comic book adaptations - that relies on the audience's knowledge of the genre for its ultimate effect.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, doing what Michael Cera does - which, no, I don't think is necessarily a bad thing) is the 22 year old bass player in a rock band "Sex Bob-omb" (a cute reference to the Mario games) that he freely admits sucks, still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after a particularly painful breakup with Envy Adams, now a famous rock star, which has resulted in his dating a 17 year old by the name of Knives Chau - a move that causes his bandmates and friends to question his sanity. "It's just... simple, I guess", he explains to his sister early in the film, highlighting Pilgrim's refusal to grow up at the crossroads of young adulthood and adulthood - and the film's many attempts to connect with this kind of youth-in-extremis vibe struck me as pandering. When he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine, both physically and as an actor), his desire for a more adult relationship - one with things like physical contact - causes him to pursue Ramona while he's supposed to be dating Knives, and the film plays his infidelities as another part of the refusal to grow up schtick that's supposed to be endearing, which I instead found obnoxious. The film's take on romance- even taking into account that it's young romance played in a comic book context - leaves much to be desired.

The film is never once critical of what a selfish asshole Pilgrim is, celebrating his confused, aimless, mixed up life as a symbol of counter-culture hipness. The films are wildly different, but I kept going back to Wes Anderson's Rushmore in my head when watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - imagine if Anderson's film treated Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer know-it-all exterior not as the facade of a confused adolescent, but as a genuine persona, and you basically have the cinematic Scott Pilgrim (I have not read Brian O'Malley's series of comics, so I can not comment on whether or not this element is true to the source material) - he doesn't just think he's hot shit, the film treats him as such, and to my mind this is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's critical flaw, celebrating the main character's vanity.

And it is not just Pilgrim's vanity that the film celebrates, the film exalts Ramona Flowers' narcissism as well - every relationship you enter has baggage, but Flowers has caused so much pain in her past relationships (she "dabbled in being a bitch", she tells Scott) that her former significant others have created the league of "Seven Evil Exes", whom Pilgrim must battle to the death if he wishes to date Ramona. It's an inventive, humorous device, but one that I feel wears out its welcome by the film's end - especially tiresome is the second to last battle with the Katayanagi twins, the dispensing of which would have made for a much leaner picture. What I find dubious is the way the film plays Ramona's 'troubled past' as a tragedy - events that happened to the characters in middle school and 9th grade are depicted in an almost mythic manner (and in the style of O'Malley's art for the comics), and I'm not so sure it's played in a way that's supposed to be ironic; Wright is deeply invested in his characters and their emotions, even if to a fault, in a film that's supposed be a goofy post-modern mash up. But the film offers no commentary on the way young people's lack of perspective causes them to make mountains out of molehills with respect to failed relationships, instead playing the juvenile high school crush phase as a kind of true love that some characters never get over.

It is Wright's considerable visual panache that saves the film from failure, and the inventive use of technique is too numerous to even mention here, but some things that really stuck out: the opening 16 bit version of the famous Universal logo, complete with MIDI soundtrack; the inventive use of cinematic space, established in the opening shot which transforms a basement used for Sex Bob-omb's rehearsal into the widest of valleys; the opening credits (which my pal Jake Cole astutely notes as Brakhage-esque in his great review), a pure expression of Wright's sense of music and its relation to image, as well as his considerable sense of color and cinematic rhythm; the De Palma esque use of split screens; the somehow not campy integration of comic book aesthetics into a motion picture - perhaps no film ever has better captured the feeling of reading panel-to-panel; the integration of video game image and sound that, again, is never campy or cutesy - particularly memorable is the use of The Legend of Zelda's theme music, which Wright called "the lullaby of a generation"; the visual humor (there is a moment where the film spoofs super hero film's traditional "suiting up" sequence, which I thought was the film's most inspired moment); Jacon Schwartzman's character Gideon, a clear channeling of Paul Williams' performance as Swan from De Palma's masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise (a film whose influence is all over Scott Pilgrim). Wright's aesthetics combine every element of pop culture - there are references to work in virtually every medium - into a phantasmagoria of image and sound that, if hollow, is never boring for a second, and Wright balances the film's hyperactivity so expertly that it's never overwhelming. Still, in spite of the wildly inventive aesthetics, I feel that the film's attitudes toward romance and entering adulthood are every bit as shallow as its main character.


Jake said...

I'm thrilled you caught on to the Gideon/Swan connection. It vaguely nagged at me but I couldn't figure out why Gideon seemed so familiar until after my review is done.

I think when you compare Scott Pilgrim to other superhero spoofs, you're right that this film assumes you know your stuff but I disagree that the others do. My chief gripe with Kick-Ass, besides it discarding some of the darker implications of the story to essentially be a bog-standard super movie posing as a deconstruction, is that it could never make fun of something without overly explaining the joke to everyone. Discontent to simply let the gag play for the "enlightened" few, it belabored what the joke was about and why it was funny until it just bored those like me who would have understood the bits. Wright, on the other hand, just throws himself into it, and I think the movie works a lot better for it.

As for the romance/maturity angle, I would be the first to say that it sadly excises many of the comic series' more insightful passages. Had it found a way to really include them or stuff them into moments that didn't feel overcooked, I would without hesitation call this the best movie of the year. But I still think there was something there that ran deeper than perfunctory moments of grown-up time. It's certainly not as subtle or moving as the stuff in, say, Adventureland, but I think they sufficiently built Scott up over two hours for it to rise above the Superbad method of doing dick jokes for two hours and then forcing a square resolution through a circular hole.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, it's much less bankrupt a formula than Apatow's, but I couldn't help but feel that it trivialized relationships somewhat. In fairness, Shaun of the Dead's take on relationship wasn't much more intricate, but I feel it's portrait of Shaun is more nuanced than that of Scott, and there is more to the film, subtextually, than there is to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

What you say about this film in relation to Kick-Ass is fair, but I still feel that calling this a 'spoof' could accurately encapsulate it, whereas that's really a gross oversimplification with respect to his first two features. So if I'm being a little hyper-critical of this film it's only because I really love his first two movies and I was somewhat disappointed in this. The brilliant aesthetics were there, as expected, but something about it bugged me in a way I frankly didn't expect.

That's a shame that it doesn't capture the emotional depth of the comic book (I've never read it but I'm just gonna go ahead and take your word for it), because I too would have loved it if it was only a little more sophisticated in its handling of the romance. I just felt like it trivialized in a way most romantic comedies do, even good ones, instead of transcending the genre as he did in Shaun of the Dead (though in fairness he transcended a great many genres in that film).

And as for the Swan/Gideon thing, usually I'll take any opportunity to relish in my observational prowess, I'm pretty sure Edgar Wright tweeted about this a few months back, and the moment I saw the Schwartzman and heard the way he inflected his voice I recalled it. Still, it was a truly great touch, and my God Schwartzman is so perfect in the role.

And don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the movie, and I know for a fact my little brother would absolutely love it, so I'm going to see it again and look forward to it. Maybe it'll go down a little smoother the second time, though I don't expect to think any more highly of it than I do.

As always, thanks for reading and for the insightful comment.

kenjfuj said...

Ryan: It's kinda unsettling how on the same wavelength we can be on movies...because you nail my thoughts on Scott Pilgrim more or less to a T. Is there such a thing as showing too much affection for your characters? There were moments when I felt that maybe Wright was working at cross-purposes with the title character's self-absorption, but the ending ends up more or less enshrining it. But of course, if only all celebrations of narcissistic self-absorption were this consistently inventive with its visuals!

Ryan Kelly said...

Is there such a thing as showing too much affection for your characters?

That more or less sums up what I was going for in all 1000 or so words I wrote. On one hand, part of what I've loved about Wright's films to this point is that very affection, and yet, I felt it was misplaced here. And what you say about the ending is spot on, because that's when the movie really just says "He's an asshole, but you should love him anyway, because he's mixed up like we all are/were!". The portrait of Scott Pilgrim felt like a somewhat disingenuous attempt to connect to my/our generation, if that makes sense.

And I didn't bring this up in the review but I really didn't like the way the love triangle was resolved. It was just a part of the rather hackneyed formula that the film adhered to - everyone hugs and everyone learns something.

But, as you say, this is certainly amongst the most visually inventive films of the year, I just really expected more from Wright.

Adam Zanzie said...

While I haven't read the graphic novels either, I'd add that I don't think the love triangle was all that necessary. Despite some occasional touching scenes I never did think that Pilgrim had great chemistry with either Ramona nor Knives. I don't think he would have been happy with either of them, and vice versa. But Wright's direction IS so enjoyably De Palma-esque that it was hard not to favor the movie in the end. I had a good time... but don't expect me to keep being favorable if the movie winds up as one of this year's 10 Best Picture nominees and becomes the next Juno. Then we've got a problem.

Another complaint I had with the movie is more minor, but I don't think it was wise for O'Malley to make the Pilgrim character a bassist, of all occupations, in the first place. There's so much fun video game imagery and inside jokes that Wright throws around in this film (the "Great Fairy" sound queue from Zelda was priceless) that I kind of wish the film had been more about games, and not alternative rock music bands. Other than the Dance Dance Revolution game that Pilgrim and Knives are playing at the beginning I couldn't really figure out what the two mediums have in common.

Ryan Kelly said...

I was entertained and charmed throughout, but I agree that the love triangle was unnecessary, and I think the exclusion of it would have made for a much tighter and better movie, as the film's affection for Scott wouldn't be such a glaring flaw if he wasn't a cheating jerk in addition to a know-it-all smartass.

I did like all the music related stuff, though, and without it you couldn't have had the end, which is a clear homage to Phantom of the Paradise, which I think is one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie (in no small part because of Schwartzman). It was just another way to display Wright's formal invention.

And I'm glad you, as a fellow De Palma fanboy, note his direction as De Palma - esque; I remember remarking to friends when I walked out of Shaun of the Dead "It's like Monty Python directed by De Palma!". I think his takes on genre, as well as his aesthetic technique, are in the same class as De Palma's.

Adam Zanzie said...

Yikes... good call there on the musical connections to Phantom. I think like Jake I wasn't able to place the familiarities between the Schwartzman and Paul Williams characters while watching the movie. It was the split screens and slow motion sequences that immediately struck the De Palma cords for me during the experience.

So, with that being said, I'll continue to bitch about the music sequences, but in a different way: Scott and his band should have either been heavy metal stars (like Beef), or they shoulda been a groovy 1960's band (like the band that sings the opening number in Phantom). But alternative rock? NO! I won't stand for it!

How can Edgar Wright possibly like that kind of music? If I recall, in Shaun of the Dead one of the records they throw at the zombies is the Batman soundtrack. But I'd rather have the Batman soundtrack than the soundtrack for this movie!

Ryan Kelly said...

That was the second album I ever bought!

MovieMan0283 said...

I didn't think I was interested in this film at all, but the excellent review - balancing enthusiasm and skepticism quite well - has intrigued me. Perhaps on DVD...

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks my friend. I don't know your feelings towards Edgar Wright but I absolutely love his first two features, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - again, they're so much more than genre spoofs. They're dazzling uses of technique, ruminations on morality, they transcend genre, and, yes, they're funny as hell. I think this is certainly dazzling, but it's lacking the substance of his first two movies, and I really, really hope that he can't only make movies with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - not because I don't think they'll be wonderful, but because he's so talented I'd like to see him extend himself a little more. I do think this is worth a look, if only for the constantly inventive aesthetics.