August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrims vs. the World

I think you're invading my space

Grade: C +

Director: Edgar Wright

Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Anna Kendrick, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Filmmaker Edgar Wright excels at uproarious parodies that double as durable entries in the very genre he lampoons. Shaun of the Dead is a genuinely scary horror-movie spoof. Hot Fuzz parodies Hollywood buddy-cop films but has a whodunit subplot and enough car chases to keep things interesting. Even his faux-movie preview Don’t, which played between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double-feature, is a 1970s’ Hammer House of Horror film trailer send-up that also boasts some truly disturbing imagery.

Wright’s film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic novel series, aims for more of the same. Like O’Malley’s source comics, the film revolves around the arrested development of the titular twenty-something slacker (played by Michael Cera, natch), who lives in Toronto with his sardonic gay roommate Wallace (Keiran Culkin) and wiles away his days jamming bass with his marginally talented garage band, Sex Bom-omb. He has also just embarked on his latest seemingly ill-fated relationship, this one with a 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian high-schooler, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).

However, Scott becomes enchanted with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a delivery girl with a curt personality and ever-changing hair color. As Knives starts stalking, Scott discovers that in order to capture Ramona’s heart, he must battle and vanquish – in ascending order of difficulty – her seven evil exes, including a skateboarder movie star (Chris Evans), identical twin DJs, and an all-powerful record producer named Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

The most memorable exe – and the film’s highpoint – is Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), a vegan, rival bassist defeated after he advertently ingests some half-and-half. There’s knowing glee when the actor who last played Superman is rendered powerless by a green ray gun wielded by the Vegan Police.

Wright faithfully replicates O’Malley’s marriage of manga-inspired artwork and video game conceit into an overcaffeinated visual fest that plays squarely to its under-30 target audience. Scott’s world is populated by thought bubbles and acquaintances with designated “player ratings.” Successful exploits can earn you an extra life; even urinating is accompanied by a yellow bar that gradually slides to empty. And, each battle sequence is a hyper-edited melee squeezed into a replicated framework of comic book panels and video screens.

Breathless attendees who screened Scott Pilgrim vs. the World several weeks ago at the annual San Diego Comic-Con scurried to instantly label the film a generational milestone. In truth, viewers will feel as through they are not so much in a movie theater as trapped in some arcade peering over the shoulder of a seventh-grade gaming savant as he tries to beat his high score. That, or perhaps confused that they’re re-watching the Wachowski Brothers’ overcooked Speed Racer.

Either way, Wright’s normally astute ability to have his satirical cake and eat its narrative underpinning too falters in Scott Pilgrim. First, it is not insignificant that Simon Pegg, Wright’s longtime collaborator, isn’t around to star or co-written this screenplay, as he did with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Moreover, while the imagery is eye-popping and the dialogue generally witty (although occasionally banal), the film’s core resides with an emotional connection to and between characters that evaporates in the setting’s stylized ether. Instead, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with the welcome – and too infrequent – appearance of Anna Kendrick as Scott’s busybody sister and figuring out why the underrated Culkin has remained relatively AWOL since his breakout performance in Igby Goes Down eight years ago.

There is a parallel worth exploring between reality and the labyrinthine, fatalistic milieu of a video game: both are worlds in which you either die prematurely or, if you’re lucky, live long enough see your preeminent success and achievement rendered meaningless once life’s levels simply and unceremoniously end. Either way, game over.

None of that is present in Scott Pilgrim, which packages passing allusions to disaffected youth and uncertain, unrequited love with FX-enhanced rock band battles and a fracas between erstwhile Sapphic lovers: “It was just a phase,” explains Ramona between dropkicks. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a heady spectacle, but it’s ultimately a war without meaning.

Neil Morris

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