Saturday, February 23, 2013

Movie Review: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" by David Pretty

Back in 2004, Toronto-based artist Bryan Lee O'Malley had considerable success with Scott Pilgrm vs. the World, a humble little black and white graphic novel with Halifax-ian connections.  O’Malley's central character is actually named after the song “Scott Pilgrim” by the all-girl alternative band Plumtree.  Along with Jale, Thrush Hermit, Eric's Trip and Sloan, Plumtree rode a crest of regional success during the Golden Age of Halifax-based indie music back in the early 90's.

O’Malley constructed an elaborate universe for the titular character, meshing wild fantasy set-pieces, real-life Toronto locales, video-game tropes and a clear passion for music.  All of these trappings merely serve as window dressing for a very sincere and bittersweet love story between two twenty-somethings who are already burdened by considerable emotional baggage.

With the release of each new volume in the graphic novel series generating higher and higher print runs, Hollywood eventually came a-knockin’ in the form of Universal Studios and director Edgar "Shawn of the Dead" Wright.  Although the resulting film adaption retains most of the book's alternative sensibilities, it also starts to fly out of control in the final act.

Scott Pilgrim (played capably by wunderkind shlub Micheal Cera) is twenty-three, “between jobs” and plays bass with his friends in a self-confessed “terrible” rock band called Sex Bob-omb.  His past love life is a bit of a shambles, since he bungled things with High School fling Kim Pine (a delightfully deadpan Alison Pill) and then got dumped by ugly-duckling-turned-superstar “Envy” Adams ( played by real-life musician Brie Larson).

He ventures into an ego-stroking relationship of convenience with Chinese High-School student Knives Chau (a perfectly cast Ellen Wong) which lasts until Scott catches a glimpse of his (literal) dream girl: the rollerblading, subspace-highway traversing, American delivery girl Ramona Flowers, played by an appropriately aloof Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Intrigued by his earnest if not slow-witted manner, Ramona tentatively admits Scott into her life but this immediately results in complications.  During Sex Bob-omb’s pivotal “The Battle of the Bands” set, Scott is set upon by Matthew Patel, the first challenger amongst Ramona's “League of Seven Evil Ex’s”.  Although Scott manages to best Patel and pledge his devotion to Ramona, his opponents become increasingly daunting and soon our hero begins to flag under the weight of his own limitations and insecurities.

Let me get this out of the way right now: if you aren’t steeped in comic books, music and video games Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may alternate between infuriating and baffling to you.  If sound effects being rendered in animation, pop-up character facts appearing right on screen, a soundtrack riddled with musical cues from The Legend of Zelda and elaborate anime-style sword fights ending with vanquished enemies exploding in a rain of coins and experience points all prompt you to roll your eyes, then this movie isn't for you.  But if you've spent most of your life marinating in Nintendo, MTV and manga, then you’re in for a giddy and original visual treat.

I absolutely loved the early goings of the flick with its slavish Hey-Let's-Use-The-Original-Graphic-Novel-As-A-Storyboard approach.  I dug Scott’s interaction with his friends, the band's burgeoning success, his tribulations in trying to juggle two girls at once and the big reveal about Ramona’s evil Ex’s.  I also reveled in the snappy dialogue, the energetic fight sequences and the olde-skool 16-bit Universal logo.

The performances are generally pretty good, even though I think that Micheal Cera is actually slightly mis-cast.  He’s got the earnest sincerity down pat, but I've always visualized Scott as traditionally pretty but kinda dim.  Although he doesn't quite look the part, Cera delivers the sort of appealing and charismatic performance that he can probably do now in his sleep.   

The conveyor belt of Ramona's evil Ex’s are all very well-realized.  Self-righteous, Vegan-fueled Brandon Routh's Todd Ingram, scenery-chewing Chris Evans's Lucas Lee and Mae Whitman's lesbian rage phase-casualty "Roxy" Richter all make their own individual “impact” (pun intended).  Jason Schwartzman is particularly good as as the ultra-smarmy “final boss” Gideon Gordon Graves.  He’s like an on-screen human oil slick, entoxifying the proceedings with his smarmy affectations.

In light of all this praise, the last third of the film stumbles a bit.  Perhaps because the sixth and final comic book was published only a month before the film was released, the final half of the movie version looses its grip on the myriad of story threads and promptly degenerates into a “things to vanquish” checklist.  It’s as if the producers looked at what they’d filmed, glanced at the unfinished script, remembered the release date and said “Oh crap, we’ve still got five more of Ramona’s Evil Ex’s to get through!  How the hell are we gonna do this?”  As a result, the lively but relatively pedestrian first half degenerates into a rushed, whirling dervish of truncated plot threads, hyperkinetic action sequences and half-baked resolutions.

At least the last few scenes are true to the comic’s original tone.  Although it would have been great to see the approach established in the first half of the film carry on to its conclusion, I also know that a lot of material had to be truncated or jettisoned in order to deliver a reasonably succinct package.

And what an original and exciting package it is!  I'm hoping that older audience members will dig the terrestrial and timeless love story and just roll with the film's unconventional style.  I'm also pretty confident that younger viewers will just automatically "get it".

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could very well be the first film in which pop culture, flash cuts and visual references to Super Mario 3 are all de rigueur.  Viewers who've been weaned on these things since birth will probably be left wondering why it took so damned long. 

     Tilt: up.

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