Tick Reviews – Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
Let me just get two things out of the way that are always good to dispense with early – hyperbole and disclaimers. In the hyperbole field I must say this is the greatest comic book movie ever made. I only log this as hyperbole because I’ve never read the Scott Pilgrim comic books, nor do I want to at this point, and fans of the book have had some grumblings about the screen translation. So, my opinion that this is the greatest comic book movie ever made may have its flaws. Facts are facts though. I like this better than The Dark Knight, Ghost World, American Splendor or other comic book adaptations that I thought could not be beaten. On the disclaimer front, let me say that this is probably THE toughest review that I’ve written thus far. I do realize that this film is not going to be for everyone and I do not, desperately in fact, do not want to oversell the film. I honestly was completely taken by surprise by the film when I saw it in the theater. Slightly blown away. It was my favorite film of the year up until this weekend when I saw Black Swan and the more I watch it on DVD the more it creeps toward my all time favorites list. Yeah, if that’s not over selling it, I don’t know what is, but let’s take a step back and start the examination.
The story revolves around Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), ultimate all-around slacker and aspiring rock star who, along with his band Sex Bob-Omb, live out their unexceptional lives in Toronto, hoping to one day hit the big time, although they aren’t trying very hard to make that happen. Scott also has another problem in that he is a bit of a cad. He has left behind a long strand of ex-girlfriends who he was dated and dumped with little consideration. Up until his last girlfriend, that is, who crushed his heart and left him for dead. Scott hasn’t really gotten over her, but he’s trying. As the film opens, he’s currently dating the exceedingly innocent and naive high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). No one approves, especially his best friend/roomate, the snarky Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin).
Scott would be happy to continue on with this simple existence of dating girls without any real consequence, playing in his band without any real success and complaining about his ex-girlfriend Envy Adams(Brie Larson) and her super successful band The Clash At Demonhead without anyone really listening. It’s simple and it’s the path of least resistance, which suits him just fine. Effort and motivation aren’t well used words in Scott’s vocabulary.
Until the day Ramona Flowers(Mary Elizabeth Winstead) skates out his dreams(literally) and into his life.
It’s from this moment on that Scott finds something that he feels is worth fighting for. He pursues Ramona and finally begins to win her over only to find that he really is going to fight for her. Literally fight for her. Ramona has seven evil exes and all have vowed to kill Scott Pilgrim. In order to be with her, Scott is going to have to fight and defeat all of them in battle and each ex is more deadly than the last.
This is the plot point that the advertising for the film mainly keyed in on and it’s the part that is likely going to keep a lot of people away from the film. I get that. Frankly, the ad campaign for this film was one of the worst in recent memory. It sells Scott Pilgrim vs The World as some sort of cutesy fluff without any real substance. It looks like some sort of tepid one note joke that’s made for comic book nerds with nothing but video game references and lame hipster irony. I can understand why people stayed away. I had NO interest in the film either and had it not been for the name of director Edgar Wright on the credits, I might never have given this a chance.
I’m glad that I did. This is not a one note joke. There is no hipster irony here and you don’t need any comic book knowledge to get on board. More importantly, there is substance here. Edgar Wright has once again created a film that is unapologetic in it’s pure pop entertainment value, yet also hides a warm and emotional underbelly that catches you off guard. Wright has become the master of this sort of melange and he once again works it for all it worth.
Quentin Tarantino is known as the master of pop culture knowledge and how to cut and paste a thousand different influences and references and weave them seamlessly into his own work of art. I think Edgar Wright is furiously nipping at his heels for the title. God bless QT, but where he works much like a DJ, sampling and cannibalizing, scenes are occasionally obvious and self-conscious, nearly begging you to scream out the reference at the screen. Wright does things in a more laid back way, knowing and winking, hoping that you may get the reference but never let it take away from his ideas that are up on the screen. Where Tarantino wants you to be seeing the films he loves as much as he wants you to be seeing his film, Wright just wants to tip his hat as he tells his own story. Even so, he’s among the best out there at the Pop Culture 101 game and Scott Pilgrim is loaded with references from film, comics and especially video games. If you just went on a shallow surface level, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is expertly crafted and infinitely enjoyable just from this frame of reference as well as it’s sardonic humor.
The strength with Edgar Wright, is that he always has more on his mind than pop culture stew. If anything, they are often a means to an end thematically and I think that applies here more than anything he’s done since his seminal BBC TV show Spaced. Like all of his work (with the exception of Hot Fuzz, which seems more and more like an oddball as Wright’s career goes on) Wright works within the themes of growing up and hitting that decisive moment when you reach that crossroad where you have to make decisions that will change your life forever. Like Shaun of the Dead, which is truly it’s cinematic soul mate, this film revolves around how love forces you to change your life and the things you do to sabotage it.
Where Shaun of the Dead was about that stage of life in your late twenties/early thirties when you have to take that great leap of fully becoming an adult and throw yourself into life with your mate and not your “mates”, Scott Pilgrim is about that moment in life when you find your first real, serious love and must adapt not just your lifestyle, but your own mindset if you want to move forward. That’s where Wright once again show his gifts as a filmmaker. The video game style battles between Scott and Ramona’s evil exes can be seen as quirky and gimmicky, but they serve a purpose. Relationships are tricky and everyone’s lives come with baggage. Focusing on baggage and someone’s past is game playing and until you can conquer these things, as well as how you mentally deal with these them, you can’t progress in a relationship. The video games and exes as villains are metaphors for what we all battle when we fall in love with someone and as the film progresses, Wright deals with these issues more and more seriously without ever letting things get too on the nose.
Wright truly understands his themes and they obviously hit home to him. He’s worked them throughout most of his on-screen output and understands how to make an emotional impact without becoming some sort of maudlin after-school special. He isn’t so much trying to make a point as honestly show characters as actual people that learn and grow. Even if He’s trying to get a moral across, he does it with a deft touch and leaves it up to you as to whether or not you take something deeper away from his films. He’s content with just entertaining you and he’s yet to miss his mark.
Not to let it seem like things get to dour at any point. Once again, Like Shaun of the Dead, Wright has a deft touch. Things take a serious and/or emotional tone when it’s warranted and it’s never played heavy-handed. There are scenes that are genuinely romantic, but not in a cheesy way that feels forced or bogs things down. It’s generally played light and fast paced. The video games fights seem like they would feel stiff, but they’re actually endearing and exciting. Scott Pilgrim exists in the same sort of reality that musicals do. Instead of people breaking into song at random intervals, they break out into fantastical, super powered fights. Video game fans will be able to recognize each fighting game that is being referenced throughout the film and will get an extra giggle and a bit of satisfaction from it, but non-gamers should be able to enjoy the fight scenes as well. They are choreographed and filmed perfectly, never taking you out of the film. The first fight with Matthew Patel(Satya Bhabha) and the battle of the bands climax against the Katayanagi Twins (Keita Saitou,Shota Saito) are especially fun to watch.
Another plus is that, across the board, the cast is excellent. Michael Cera really shines in the role and it’s not exactly what you expect from him. He half plays the role as the Michael Cera that you know and love and/or are tired of seeing, but he also bring a different layer to his usual performance. He’s quite a bit more sincere and he’s obviously a conflicted soul fighting himself every step of the way. As the other characters state, Scott is a lady-killer and more than a bit arrogant and self-centered. Cera gives that edge to the character, but also lets us see the unsure, self doubting side of Scott, especially as he moves into undiscovered territory as he falls in love with Ramona. Kieran Culkin steals every moment he’s on screen as Scott’s droll and extremely confidently gay best friend and roommate. He commands every scene and basically serves (mainly) as the only person in Scott’s life that tells him like it is and tries to guide him in the right direction. It shouldn’t be a real surprise, I suppose, as every member of the Culkin family except Macaulay has proven they are pretty damn great actors.
Chris Evans and, especially, Brandon Routh also shine in their small roles as two of Ramona’s evil exes. Both fully throw themselves into fairly over the top roles and come through, delivering more character depth than they should be able to in their ten minutes, as well as some finely honed comedic chops. I have firmly believed that both of these two are actors that should have better careers than they’ve had thus far and unfortunately, this film probably won’t help them out. Evans and Routh both have higher profile comic book adaptations coming out and hopefully they’ll both get some bigger and more diverse roles from those.
The big breakthrough here, I think, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She’s been in a lot of films up to this point and in a quite a few thankless roles. I’ve always thought she was okay. Not great, not terrible, but serviceable. She’s pretty, but not gorgeous. A decent actress, but not someone you usually remember. Here, she’s a star and she plays her part effortlessly. Winstead, and what I’ve said about her previously, embody the character of Ramona Flowers. Ramona is supposed to be the sort of woman that brings men to their knees without trying. Winstead plays the role subtly, almost lazily, and nails just what Ramona embodies. She’s just strong enough to intimidate you, but vulnerable enough to melt your heart. She’s a survivor who’d never be easily defeated, but she’s damaged. She’ll always be in control but she’s secretly waiting to be swept off her feet. Winstead seems to get every beat and every quirk of this character and completely becomes her on-screen. I’ve never really paid attention to her before, but now her name might be enough to push me towards watching something that she’s in. She’s just one of many perfectly cast parts in this film.
Finally, there’s the soundtrack, and it’s one hell of a soundtrack. At the center of this film, regardless of the themes or plot or special effects, almost every character in this film is in a band and much of it centers around the music scene and bands trying to further their careers. A dumb filmmaker would have just filled in the blanks with shitty bands of the moment and their lousy, ill-fitting songs. Wright is not a dumb filmmaker. The music in this film was taken very seriously and it makes for a soundtrack that should work it’s way into your rotation. All of the songs for Scott’s band Sex-Bob-Omb are written by Beck and they’re good, 90’s alt-punk influenced songs that obviously ring of Beck’s cannon. It’s reported that Beck wrote several albums worth of songs just to get to the 4-5 songs performed by the fictional band in the film. They’re performed well by Beck himself, as well as the actual on-screen band members of Cera, Mark Webber and Allison Pill. I dare you to not tap your toes to songs like Threshold, Garbage Truck and Summertime. The other bands songs are performed quite handily by Broken Social Scene and Metric, whose song Black Sheep is believable as a massively popular chart dominating single. Background songs include The Rollings Stones, Frank Blank, T-Rex and Plumtree, so this is no lightweight soundtrack.
All things separate, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is full of many reason to love this film and only a couple of them should be enough to make this a summer blockbuster. All of them together make this easily one of the best of the year in what has been a pretty weak twelve month period. I understand that there was nothing in the ad campaign that should have brought in the people that weren’t already fans of the graphic novel, and that’s a shame. Studios increasingly make bad decisions and don’t have any idea how to market their films or even understand when they have something special on their roster. Now that it’s on DVD, I urge you to give this a chance. If you’re a true film lover with an open mind, I don’t see how you could be disappointed by this. Edgar Wright continues to prove that, in a world full of Transformers and Fokkers, he’s one of several directors that make this a truly exciting time to be a film lover.