Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Love. That most lofty of human ideals remains difficult to describe, but whether it's for a person or a work of art, you know it when you feel it, right there in your gut. And I fucking loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's a film that appealed to my every comedic, aesthetic, and pop cultural sensibility with such eerie precision that I suspect director Edgar Wright spied on me personally via webcam for years before one line of the script was written or one storyboard drawn. Perverted, but, watching the movie, obviously true. It's not only the best film of the year so far but among the very best of the last five years, and I can't tell you how rare and how viscerally satisfying it is for the credits to roll on a movie and my first reaction being "I have to see that again!"

There's been quite a few movies adapted from video games by this point, none of them legitimately good (Prince of Persia took a noble swing earlier this summer, but still fell short of having merit), but the well of narrative movies not adapted from but about video games runs bone dry. Once, not long ago, all a retro gamer could do is watch 1989's longform Nintendo commercial The Wizard, a movie with kitsch value but little else that clearly wasn't made with any fire or passion from its director. But Edgar Wright does have the fire, he does have the passion, and most importantly, as you already know if you've seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he has the talent, and Scott Pilgrim is now by a hundred thousand miles the best film about video games ever made. Retro video games, at that!

And this distinction is significant. Gaming culture tends to have a poorer sense of its own history than film, music, or literature — it's the only medium I can think of where products from three or four years ago are straight-facedly referred to as "old" — so to see a theatrically-released movie in 2010 that features music and sound effects from Zelda and Sonic and Final Fantasy, not to mention dialogue references to Mario and Pac-Man and even more obscure NES games like Clash at Demonhead, was unexpected. Blissful, actually. And far from being empty Family Guy-esque "hey, remember this!" asides, these references crucially inform the characters and the story. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just the tale of Scott Pilgrim but of an entire generation of young nerds that see life through the prism of nostalgic pop culture.

But I don't want to make it sound like retro video game references are all Scott Pilgrim has going for it. Far, far from it. Yes, I'd be lying if I said the film didn't win my heart the second it opened with the title jingle from Zelda: A Link to the Past, but the underlying movie's so terrific that that's really just the cherry on top. The story's pretty simple if you don't get into all the side characters: a 22-year-old Canadian garage band singer named Scott Pilgrim falls in love with a girl named Ramona Flowers, who has seven evil exes. So Scott must fight seven boss battles and defeat each ex in mortal combat. That's pretty much it, but the magic of this film doesn't lie in its overarching narrative but in its astonishingly hilarious script, incredibly creative editing, cool action scenes, and wonderful performances.

What this movie has in common with Wright's previous films Shaun and Hot Fuzz is its perceptive and knowing commentary on pop culture. Where it differs is in its astoundingly propulsive pacing. I'm not saying that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will be nominated for best editing at the Oscars, because it won't, but it is the most brilliantly-edited film of the year, if not the last five years. Scenes move with sheer kinetic energy, flinging jokes and funny dialogue and gorgeous visuals at you with barely a second to breathe — dialogue will be missed because of laughter, I'm afraid — and that's when we're not in the thick of one of many incredibly creative fight scenes.

The purposefully jarring, funny, tangible way Wright transitions from scene to scene is difficult to fully describe without seeing it firsthand except to say that it humiliates movies like Sin City in how it evokes the feel of a comic book without just dryly copying the visuals straight out of one. But it's safe to say that out of the total number of times I've laughed out loud at scene transitions in any film or television show in my life, at least 50% of that pool now belongs to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

I'm not a huge fan of the label "action-comedy," simply because it almost always refers to a comedy that has some halfhearted action thrown in there. This year's Kick-Ass was one of the few films I felt truly earned the moniker, and before that, shit, I dunno, Beverly Hills Cop in 1984? But Scott Pilgrim is here to not just earn the label, but take up residence at the top of the hill, perhaps never to be dethroned. The comedy is swift, surreal, irreverent, gleefully absurdist, deals equally in broad slapstick and character-based humor, and made me laugh as hard as Arrested Development at its peak, which is all I really need to say. That's rare enough as is, but fact that the fighting holds up its end of the picture too makes this film nothing short of lightning in a bottle.

The best part of the fight scenes between Scott and Ramona's evil exes, along with the way they evoke a rich history of fighting game iconography, is that they make no attempt whatsoever to contextualize the fights within a real-world setting. The movie doesn't end with Scott waking up to discover it was all a dream. We aren't seeing things though his video game-adled perspective. This is just very simply a world where everyone is a kung fu master and people throw fireballs, employ telekinesis, run with anime speed, and command dragons made out of sonic energy to the interest of bystanders but not that much more interest than an ordinary fight in our boring old real world would. It's wish-fulfillment but more importantly lets Wright cut loose with the full force of his potent imagination whenever it comes time for Scott to do battle. I wouldn't dare give away the details of any specific bout, but each is completely distinct and vastly entertaining.

Scott himself is of course played by Michael Cera of Year One fame of Superbad and Arrested Development fame. If you've spent time on any movie-centric internet message boards you may be aware that a certain bizarrely angry backlash has developed against Michael Cera over time despite his brilliant comedic timing and the unique energy of his onscreen presence. But I actually suffer from an extremely horrific disorder than affects approximately one out of every million internet-users where I have the mental capacity to form my own opinions without latching onto any hype, backlash, or counter-backlash movement and letting them tell me what I think, so I have no problem acknowledging his talent.

It goes without saying that he delivers all the funny dialogue as well as he always does when the script gives it to him (of course, even Cera couldn't save Year One), but he also sells the fight scenes. No, he doesn't look like much of a brawler, and has even said in interviews that he still has no idea how to fight and this movie's battles basically amounted to learning and performing dance choreography, but having seen both Scott Pilgrim and the muscle-laden-and-testerone-oozing The Expendables this weekend, I can tell you that Scott Pilgrim's action scenes are approximately ten thousand times more vibrant and interesting. In the end what a good movie fight scene comes down to is energetic filmmaking and choreography, not behemoth biceps on the actor performing said choreography, because sorry stud, however many muscles you got, you're still doing a dance.

But Scott Pilgrim's bench of talent runs deep, and Michael Cera isn't carrying this thing alone. Kieran Culkin manages to breathe unprecedented, hilarious life into the tired "snarky gay friend" archetype as Scott's snarky gay roommate Wallace Wells, while Alison Pill creates one of the funniest misanthropes in recent cinematic history as Kim Pine, the drummer of Scott's band Sex Bob-omb. Even characters with minimal screentime make the most of it, namely Brie Larson creating a magnetic femme fatale as Scott's ex and singer of rival band Clash at Demonhead, and Brandon "Superman" Routh and Chris "Captain America" Evans oozing delightfully cartoonish evil as two of Ramona's exes. Mae Whitman — who played Michael Cera's girlfriend Ann Veal on Arrested Development — also shows up and does great work, although in one of my few distinct disappointments with the film, no one ever refers to her as "...her?"

Despite all that talent I think that the theoretical award for my favorite performance in the film might have to go to newcomer Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, the Chinese schoolgirl Scott is dating as the film opens. She abandons every shred of dignity and self-awareness and flings herself into the role with abandon that rivals actors who have been performing on the big screen for decades, pining after Scott with emotional vulnerability that is alternately (if not simultaneously) hilarious and heartbreaking. With a fraction of Scott's screentime Knives manages to have the most moving character arc in the film, and I hope to see Wong have a long and successful career.

The one character I will admit isn't quite up to par with the rest of film in writing or performance is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers. Not that she's bad or holds back the movie; she's pretty and droll and snarky but the film already has these elements accounted for in spades and she has little character arc, mostly just being a walking plot device to create strife and kung fu battles for everyone around her. The female lead being flatly written is a very, very common flaw in movies starring men, but although it's not nearly as bad here as in many other romantic comedies I've seen this year alone, it's still undeniably present.

Altogether though, I truly loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There's been a lot of recent films that successfully streamlined nerdiness into something palatable for everyone, like The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight; hell, the nerdiest franchise on earth was improbably made sexy and cool with last year's Star Trek. But Scott Pilgrim is something else, something impossibly rare: a movie that unapologetically speaks fluent nerd to the exclusion of non-nerds. It's a film for pop culture junkies, retro gamers, and Arrested Development fans. It feels like a cinematic gift just for me. That I'm gonna buy it on DVD and watch it dozens of times over the remainder of my life goes without saying, and I have to personally thank Edgar Wright for giving me such a damn good time at the movies.

5 Stars out of 5

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