Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Film Review] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Two of the guys from my boardgaming group and I were talking about Riki-Oh and Ninja Scroll, and how the plots of those movies are really just excuses for their protagonists to fight a bunch of differently-gimmicked opponents, yet manage to be kind of mystifying at the same time. As one of my pals put it, there's no real plot to speak of, but there are a stultifying number of events.

Two days later, when my wife asked me if I wanted to go see Scott Pilgrim, I kind of assumed that I'd be seeing the same kind of movie. I haven't read any of the books, but from the trailer I knew that there were going to be seven boss battles, and that seemed like a lot to string together and still have time for anything more than the barest excuse for connective tissue. In retrospect, I was such a fool to have thought that Edgar Wright might fail me so spectacularly.

Instead, Wright made yet another romantic comedy that I didn't realize was a romantic comedy until after I was finished watching it. Neither half of that sentence should be read as a criticism. Though Wright doesn't seem interested in projects that aren't rom-coms, he mostly ignores the form and tropes of the genre and instead sticks to its most basic idea - a romance of some kind between two lead characters which is stymied and complicated by their own hangups and issues as well as wacky circumstances outside their control, which circumstances at some point get used by our plucky protagonists in order to fix their personal problems. That those circumstances tend to be more outsized than is standard for the genre is absolutely to Wright's credit, given how badly the normal formula needs some new ideas pumped into it.

Michael Cera does his normal Michael Cera thing, although the character of Scott calls for him to replace Cera's normal shyness with selfishness. If you're familiar with his usual onscreen persona, this probably means you already know whether or not you're going to find the character funny or annoying, but Cera does pull out an unexpected emotional beat: righteous fury. It only happens twice in the movie, as most of the time Scott displays his anger as petulance rather than wide-eyed rage, but Cera surprised me by totally selling me on Scott's triumphant anger those few times that the character worked his way up to it.

Not all of the jokes work, but the film is edited so sharply and proceeds at such a breakneck pace that you won't have time to dwell on the ones that didn't make you laugh. So much of the material is exhilaratingly funny that the few bits that don't work are mostly welcome as a quick break for the facial muscles, anyway. There's a particularly great device that the story uses just enough to not become tiresome, whereby a character will make an absurd statement about the world which works as a sarcastic commentary on another character but is later revealed to be an actual piece of the setting. Since none of what's going on here is explained, that technique serves as a novel way to turn humor into worldbuilding.

The action is good adrenaline-pumping stuff, and though the videogame style of the fights does make them feel a bit light, that ultimately works in the film's favor. It's not particularly visceral stuff, which is fine, since the model here is River City Ransom rather than Thrill Kill. Keeping the tone light by adding helpful onomatopoeic captions to the blows and avoiding the splatter that characterized Wright's previous two films works because the fights happen for a reason, and effectively removing the physical danger from these confrontations focuses our attention on the emotional stakes that fuel the motivation for the throwdowns in the first place.

Scott Pilgrim isn't doing well in theaters, which is a shame. Is it targeted at too specific a niche? I can remember when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out and was greeted by rapturous reviews from an arthouse crowd who probably didn't normally care much for wu xia/kung fu stuff, and that film certainly seemed to rely more heavily on knowledge of genre expectations to achieve its story than Scott Pilgrim relies on video game tropes. There are a lot of little Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, obviously, but there were definitely little nods that I recognized happening but didn't understand the full import of, yet that ignorance didn't harm the film for me at all. It may also have suffered from a paradoxical lack of overt exoticism, especially in its opening scenes. By assuming that what we are seeing is a somewhat stylized but mostly normal depiction of our real world, some viewers may have been irrevocably thrown for a loop when the weirdness began. If the film had been set in an fantasy land or even another real-world culture or historical setting, I'm betting that the supernormal elements would have gone down a lot more smoothly.

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