Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

I love Edgar Wright. Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz are all marvellous things.

Scott Pilgrim is about a character who's absorbed video game culture, and largely processes the world in those terms. For Wright, this is largely going back to Spaced territory. I'm a video gaming nerd. This should be a home run. So the fact that this mostly didn't work for me was a major disappointment.

My problem with the movie can be summed up with two words: Knives Chau.

Knives Chau is a seventeen yearold high school girl. Scott Pilgrim is dating her, which is like totally a major scandal because he left high school like thirteen years ago*. She's charming, bubbly, naive and immensely likeable. He's dating her because it's nice and easy after the horrible breakup he suffered. If you've ever been on that end of a relationship you should already have a cringing realization of how horrible a dick he's being to her. This dickishness is cemented when he meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams -- literally: there's a subspace highway through his head, which she makes use of for her job as an delivery girl -- strings Knives along because breaking up is totally like hard and stuff until he bags Ramona and leaves Knives adrift in a terrible black frame of despair.

This is as good a point as any to point out that Scott Pilgrim makes no sense as a whole except at the metaphorical level. Scott Pilgrim has to fight Ramona's seven evil exes to be able to continue to date her. Scott gains the Power of Love, causing a sword to burst from his chest to fight an Evil Ex -- read: emotional baggage from previous relationships. This makes no sense in the real world, but on an emotional level it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: Knives is likeable. She is far more likeable than Scott. Scott hurting her makes him immensely dislikeable. Now, in a comedy, having a dislikeable protagonist is not necessarily a problem. For one, a sufficiently charming actor can make you root for a character in spite of the dickishness. Alternately, we could simply be treated to watching the dick suffer at the hands of the Comedy Gods.

Michael Cera is not the actor to make Scott likeable. He can be a likeable nerd. A likeable asshole nerd? No. And the movie expects you to care about Scott's fight against the seven evil exes for Ramona's love. Worse: Scott and Knives have some chemistry. Scott and Ramona have none. If we had a hopelessly doomed relationship abandoned in favour of a promising one, I'd might still sympathise with Scott. Instead, we get the opposite.

In the end of a romantic comedy, which is approximately what this is -- CAUTION this is a major SPOILER coming up; if you haven't seen the movie, read along at your own peril -- when the secondary romantic interest sends the hero towards His True Love with a stoic "I'm too cool for you anyway" and your immediate reaction is "Damn right you are!" instead of "AWWWWWW" it is a major fucking problem.

Another problem is the fights against the seven evil exes. I hate to embarass myself like this, but I am as gay as Scott's awesome gay roommate has ever been for fellow Bushmill's loving sexy Irish redhead John Rogers, and his post on how to write action is as relevant as ever.

To summarize: action scenes are suspense scenes that require action to resolve. If there is no suspense, they should reveal character. If you can't do that, deliver exposition. If there's none of that, you're utter shit. Scott Pilgrim is to fight seven evil exes. So the first ex delivers exposition on the role of the exes. We've already established that the movie plays by no real-world rules, and we've no ways of discrning's if Scott's in danger or not. Besides, do you really believe anyone except the seventh would present a reasonable challenge? No, me neither. The fights slightly reveal character, but by revealing slight bits of Ramona's backstory, and ultimatey Ramona's a bloody cipher, nothing but an object of Scott's desire. If Scott is to earn his redemption, and redeem himself in my eyes, the fights need to make him face horrible truths about his dickishness. They do not. This means I was mildly bored, watching a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Sure, there was an occasional gag in there, but not enough to justify the screen time.

I am being horribly down on this, but it is inevitable, since the movie's emotional core and central conceit falls completely flat. But really, I love everything except he central characters. Kieran Culkin is brilliant as Scott's cool gay roommate, and his droll delivery of lines frequently salvage scenes that should be moribound. The movie's full of energy. The visual style is splendid. I love that Brie Larsen -- who plays the evil ex that broke Scott's heart -- actually sings the vocals to Metric's Black Swan instead of miming to the song. I love Kim Pine, Scott ex-girlfriend and his band's drummer. I love Knives Chau. I love that the movie turned me on to Metric:

I love everything except the central couple. There's a hollow vacuum where the movie's heart should be, and there's nothing the ancillary details can do to overcome this. I can't actually love the movie. And this breaks my heart.

*Actually, he's 22. Admittedly on dodgier end of things, but not quite Lolita territory, in case you were worried.


Scots said...

I completely and utterly agree on the action scenes, they are without stakes and hence without any weight, therefore they are merely visual exercises and as such they become something of a chore as the movie progresses.

I'm not so sure I agree on the emotional core, I think that problem falls back to the fact that all the emphasis on Scott defeating the exes. You then do the feedback loop of: no stakes, means no drama, means no audience care factor, which means the whole thing of winning Ramona is akin to trudging through a computer game with joyous level design and art but hamstrung with boring boss fights at the end of each level.

There's not enough time spent just developing the connection and chemistry between them, which I think *is* there, but it's not the focus. Whereas with Knives and Scott, that's all there is.

I agree that Scott's set-up is a fairly unlikeable character in what he does at the outset, but what would have made him a character that the audience would give a shit about would be making him the underdog in the fight agaisnt the exes to win Ramona. But that doesn't happen as they hop straight into him kicking ass and flying through the sky when I was expecting Scott to get his ass thoroughly handed to him in the first round. Maybe if they'd even forshadowed it with him playing some games with boss fighting so that you get an idea he's a gaming badass to make the transition not so blunt, but that's where it all falls apart for me... which is a bit of a big issue given that it's the core of the movie and the fuckin' title.

REGARDLESS of all of that though, the visual ingenuity and script was hilarious, the characters were very enjoyable in the story and if only a little bit more time had been spent in nailing the stakes and drama of the fighting, this would have been another A+ Edgar Wright offering. As it stands, for sheer inventiveness and visual virtuosity, I give it a B-.

Scots said...

Come on, I don't even get a rebuttal?

SH said...

Sorry mang. I'm in the deep north, doing the ritual Christmas socializing with family units, so I haven't really been keeping up with my internets as I should.

Since were in agreement in about the problems with the fights, there's not much in your take for me to disagree with though.

I still think Ramona's a pretty dreadful love interest with whom Scott has no chemistry, but it's not fair to land that entirely on the actors. As you point out, the movie is in such a hurry to get to the fights, we get very little time with them actually interacting.

(Apparently, Scott was originally supposed to get back together with Knives in the end. In that case, the relationship being so shallow could've been an asset, since then you could then argue that he'd grown to realize how shallow his crush was over the course of the movie instead of whatever unearned realization he got in the desert. Also, he'd be agreeing with me.)

You rating it higher is ultimately down to putting more emphasis on the energy and style -- and it does have those in spades. Maybe I'll start leaning more towards your take once I get over my crushing disappointment.

Scots said...

That's an acceptable excuse!

I have no disappointment beyond it being the least likeable of Edgar Wright's flicks as I had no knowledge of the comics, but having just rewatched it a second time I do agree that the chemistry is somewhat lacking as is the ending in general.

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