Friday, January 25, 2019

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

[Original 2010 Movie of the Year ballot here.]

USA / UK / Canada / Japan, 112 minutes
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright, Bryan Lee O'Malley
Photography: Bill Pope
Music: Sex Bob-Omb, Beck, Nigel Godrich, Broken Social Scene, etc.
Editors: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons

Set in hipster precincts of wintertime Toronto, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie that obviously feels free to dress up any old way it likes, cycling through its modes like wardrobe changes: romantic comedy, teen sex farce, indie rock band bio, quest or journey tale, superhero comic book fare, and, perhaps most oddly of all, video game set piece. Director and cowriter Edgar Wright is the kind of filmmaker in love with making movies for the pure fun of it and it's almost always infectious. His shameless genre slumming, which reminds me of Joe Dante in its pure glee, has already produced a number of great pictures and maybe one or two interesting failures: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver, The World's End. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be the best thing he's done yet (I know I might get some argument on that) but Wright is still young and not close yet to being finished, whatever it is exactly he's doing.

A frequent complaint about Scott Pilgrim is Michael Cera in the lead role—with Jesse Eisenberg, Cera was the quintessential millennial pincushion target of 2010. Born on TV's Arrested Development, Cera established himself in the movies in such exercises as Superbad and Juno. He's starting to age out now, basically always playing the same guy, a gentle, daffy, ineffectual mumbling model of sensitive male youth—Woody Allen as undriven by sexual compulsion. Or, put it this way, Cera may be possessed of toxic masculinity (it shows up in Pilgrim a couple of times unexpectedly) but he has the sense to feel actual remorse about it. Scott Pilgrim's task here is to dump his rebound "fake high-school girlfriend," Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), in pursuit of dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—and defeat Flowers's seven evil exes in battle. Presumably the reason Pilgrim is up for it at all is because he has spent his life playing video games.

Actually, all things considered, I think Cera is nearly perfect for the role. He's not likable but more like a friendly stray animal no one minds who keeps hanging around. He's the bass player in a punkish power trio called Sex Bob-Omb (pronounced "buh-bomb"), which plays songs by Beck as if they had written them themselves. Good songs too, like "Garbage Truck." The drummer is Pilgrim's ex from when they were in high school, Kim (Alison Pill). Pilgrim also has another ex named Envy (Brie Larson), who dumped him hard a little more than a year earlier (431 days, we are informed at one point). She broke his heart and went on to become a rock star in a band that sounds like the '80s act Berlin. So Scott Pilgrim has plenty of exes around too, but it's Flowers's exes he has to battle.

No doubt these fight scenes are the highlight for many viewers, and honestly I enjoy them myself, though the movie overall is 20 to 30 minutes too long and I think that's where the cutting could have happened. I don't know video games that well but most of the skirmishes here look like variations on the one-on-one hand-to-hand combat of Street Fighter, which came along in the late '80s and even I have played. Scott Pilgrim has distinct modes and moves about them at will. In the battle scenes Pilgrim and his foes are able to take incredible levels of punishment and can also defy gravity—in other words, it becomes a comic book superhero movie. When an opponent is defeated, usually with a dramatic KO blow, he turns into a shower of coins.

For me, the main highlight—and this movie is actually packed with them, a sizzling unflagging kinetic blast of restless fun energy—remains the band Sex Bob-Omb, which brightens up the whole room any time they show up. Equal parts mopey indie lo-fi and fine-edged blasting rock 'n' roll authority, out of the playbooks of Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, and other usual suspects, Sex Bob-Omb casts a warm glow over the picture. Besides Pilgrim and Kim, the band's singer and guitarist is named Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Pilgrim's understudy on bass is called Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). Pilgrim, from the stage: "We are Sex Bob-Omb and we are here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff." (Kim, also from the stage, later: "We are Sex Bob-omb. We are here to sell out and make money and stuff.")

Which reminds me, there's probably too much cute stuff like inarticulate 20somethings appending "and stuff" to anything they say. Well, all right, but as far as I'm concerned Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is way ahead of most Wes Anderson movies in the realm of exactly these inarticulates. It's a busy picture—multiple modes, lots of concept, a big and impressive cast (don't miss Aubrey Plaza as a sour character who can't stop swearing), and handfuls of buzzing production ideas that artfully blur all the lines. It gets to be a bit like the weather. If you don't like what you're looking at, wait a few minutes. There's something new in this movie just about to happen.

Top 10 of 2010
1. Another Year
2. Black Swan
3. Certified Copy
4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
5. Exit Through the Gift Shop
6. Poetry
7. Animal Kingdom
8. The Social Network
9. Blue Valentine
10. Cyrus

Other write-ups: The Ghost Writer, Super, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

1 comment:

  1. You've thrown down the gauntlet: Edgar Wright vs Wes Anderson. One weekend movie fest binge. Plenty of snacks. Despite his annoying affectations I'm still leaning Anderson but I'm intrigued by the challenge.