Aug 26, 2010

Martial Arts Month: Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

DIR: Edgar Wright
CAST: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin,
Jason Schwartzman, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong

SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD is officially a flop in the US, having met with a distinctly underwhelming $10 million on its opening weekend. However, Edgar Wright’s third film, whatever its box office fate around the world, is a cult hit waiting to happen. The story of the geeky unemployed musician Scott Pilgrim (Cera), who if he wants to be with the girl of his dreams (Winstead as Ramona Flowers) must defeat her seven evil exes, may be fantastical, but it’s also universal. As Ramona notes, “everyone has baggage”. Add that to the breathless invention of Edgar Wright’s visuals, the sharp and funny screenplay, and pop culture savvy enough to impress the most jaded of hipsters and you’ve got a cult on your hands.

Happily, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD will deserve its eventual success, because though it is far from perfect this is certainly one of the most purely entertaining films of 2010, and one of the very few quality American made films of the year (notably, like KICK ASS, it was made by a British director). Right from the word go, when the film opens with an 8-BIT rendition of the Universal logo and music, you can tell that Edgar Wright is going to cut loose and enjoy himself for every frame of this movie. That can be a problem; it can mean that a film essentially becomes a masturbatory indulgence for a director, but not so here. For the most part the audience has just as much fun as it is evident the cast and crew did while making the film.

However, there is a pretty big hole right at the centre of the film, in the form of Scott Pilgrim himself. It’s partly the character, who is a whiny irritant, whose apparent success with women (by my count we’re supposed to believe that he’s slept with Alison Pill and Brie Larson’s characters, that Ellen Wong is madly in love with him and that Ramona Flowers is also interested in him) is close to inexplicable, because he’s as charmless as he is dull. The point at which I most wanted to slap him was when Scott’s roommate (the excellent Culkin) tells him that before he begins seriously dating Ramona he should break up with his current girlfriend; Knives Chau (Wong) and Scott replies “But it’s hard”. It may also be Michael Cera that is the problem, because he gives the exact same performance that he’s previously given in SUPERBAD, JUNO, YOUTH IN REVOLT and several others. He’s always Michael Cera, rather than Scott Pilgrim.

Amazingly, this central hole doesn’t fatally wound the film, indeed it is enjoyable in spite of its leading character and actor, something thanks largely to the hilarious and brilliantly inventive screenplay by Wright and Michael Baccall and to the exceptional supporting cast. Aside from Cera and Winstead everyone in the film is basically a guest star, and they all make the most of their few minutes. I was especially fond of Alison Pill’s sardonic Kim (the drummer in Scott’s hideously named band, Sex Bob-omb), which reminds me, why don’t we see more of her? More great contributions come from Anna Kendrick, as effortlessly brilliant as ever as Scott’s sister; Aubrey Plaza, whose character’s foul mouth is bleeped and obscured in a lovely meta joke; Ellen Wong, who makes an engaging and energetic debut as Knives and Kieran Culkin, who is probably the closest the film comes to having a real, identifiable person.

The seven evil exes are all great, but it is worth mentioning a few in particular. Mae Whitman, whose opening line to Scott: “You punched me in the boob. Prepare to die, obviously” is one of the film’s funniest, is very funny as Roxie Richter, and has perhaps the film’s best fight (we’ll get to that later). Chris Evans is spectacularly slimy and funny as egotistical movie star Lucas Lee, who employs his stunt team to fight Scott for him. However, it’s Brandon Routh who nearly runs away with the movie. The latest Superman has shrugged off the earnestness of SUPERMAN RETURNS and marked himself out as a really strong comic actor, and his turn as super powered Vegan Todd is one of the real highlights of the film (along with that sequence’s Vegan Police).

It would all be for nothing, though, if the girl weren’t worth it. Ramona Flowers is only sketchily drawn, but I immediately bought into the idea that Scott, indeed any man, would be willing to fight seven evil exes to be with her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dazzlingly beautiful, clearly, and I’m not sure she’s ever looked better than she does here, but that’s not the reason you buy into Scott’s quest. It’s hard to put your finger on, but there is simply something about Winstead; call it charisma, call it allure, call it je ne sais quoi, she’s just compelling. That’s why you buy it, and that’s also why she’s going to be a big, big star. I found her, and Ramona, as enchanting as Scott does. It’s a lovely performance; she’s a little mysterious, but there’s a sense of fun behind everything she does.

Aside from the romance storyline with Ramona, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD really has two concerns; music and fighting. Of these the music works less well. Beck wrote the songs for Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb, and apparently the brief was that they should be somewhere between awful and awesome. Sadly the accent falls on awful. When all is said and done Sex Bob-omb are almost as bad as their name, the best thing about them being the many and varied ways they introduce themselves (“We are Sex Bob-Omb and we are here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff.”) It’s probably deeply uncool to say so, because they are presented as the film’s corporate sell out, but the best music here comes from Clash at Demonhead, the band led by Scott’s ex, Envy Adams (Brie Larson). Of course it helps that the fantastic Metric wrote and play their song. It’s a nice way to get the characters together, but frankly the musical sequences often outstay their welcome, and one robs us of what could have been a very cool action scene.

I have recently railed against a lot of action films, because they have, thanks to shaky-cam, close ups and slam bang cutting they have barely let us see their action (I’m glaring at you, THE EXPENDABLES). That’s not the case here. You can tell that the action was worked on with the assistance of the Jackie Chan stunt team; it is intricate, fluid, frequently amazing to watch, and the actors seem to be doing the bulk of their own stunts. The highlight for me was the most clearly Hong Kong influenced fight, which has Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Mae Whitman fighting, Whitman armed with metal whip and Winstead with a massive hammer. It’s a really funny fight, never more so than when Winstead grabs Cera and uses him as a prop to fight. That said, all the action is great, and Wright handles it brilliantly. He still cuts fast, but his editing is fluent, keeping the geography of each scene intact, and his angles tend to be set a little way back, so that much of the time we can see the whole of the performers bodies as they fight. This is how you do comic book action; stylised, sure, but never so much so that anything is lost to the style.

I enjoyed SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD a great deal, and yet I can’t quite recommend it unreservedly. Michael Cera is a problem; an almost determinedly uncharismatic actor who nearly scuppers a movie which is saved by the quality of everything around that rather poor centre. See it at the most packed screening you can, because this is a movie that will benefit from an audience. I’m sure that you’ll have a lot of fun with it. I did.

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