Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Retro Reviews: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.

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There are a number of older critics (let's call them the fuddy-duddy set) who have not only called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a bad movie (which it most certainly is not - and they should now that!) but have called it so because of some self-delusional belief that the film has little or no relevance for anyone over the age of thirty - or maybe even twenty-five.  This seems to be less a rational and thought out type of film criticism and more a reactionary pot shot at a youth culture they do not understand.  A youth culture they are perhaps a little bit afraid of, perhaps not remembering those halcyon days when they too were young and they too were part of a youth culture thought unfathomable by their parents and parental peers.  But alas, such is the prerogative of the geezer set.

I on the other hand, am of that age straddling both sides of said generational gap.  Having turned 43 just last month, I am of that very first video game generation that cut its collective teeth on Pac-Man and Space Invaders and Pitfall, and later on Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat.  Yet, at the same time, I am not so young (or foolish) as to believe I am still part of that youth culture in any way (other than as an outside observer) and therefore not so young (or foolish again) to mistake something ultra-cool or awesome for something good, or even great - a mistake made by many a moviegoer these days, as well as many a fevered blogger and/or "ain't it cool" film reviewer - that gives rise to many an otherwise mediocre movie, placing it in the so-called cultural stratum not for it's filmic qualities but because of its temporal hipness.

Luckily for all concerned (even that aforementioned old-fogey set, whether they like it or not!) director Edgar Wright is of pretty much the same straddling generation as I am (seven years younger but still brought up on Donkey Kong and Zelda - which shows in his use of an 8-bit Paramount logo to start the movie off in the right frame of mind), and therefore able to distinguish between the so-called awesome and the legitimately made work of cinema.  And this is exactly what Wright gives us in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - the perfect amalgam between the ultra hip and the ultra cinematic. Blending a cinematic prowess that shows just how much Wright loves his calling, with a hipster mentality that shows just how on the pulse with that (again) youth culture the director is, he has created the perfect concoction for the post-millennial movie crowd - aka, that youth culture that has been all the rave so far in this review.

But then, since this is supposed to be a film review and not a debate on the generational gap, perhaps one should stop waxing philosophical about how all these damned generations cannot get along (an obvious dilemma come every new generation anyway), and start talking about the actual movie itself.   So here goes.  As is the trend these days, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an adaptation of a popular graphic novel (one that this somewhat inconsistent comic book junky admittedly had not read prior to seeing the movie) and to add to that, an adaptation of a graphic novel about the gamer sub-culture of today's (yes, here it comes again) youth culture - and in being so, blurs the newfound proverbial line even further between movies and video games.  But not to worry true believers, for this blurred vision does not equate - as is usually the case it seems - with the visual awesomeness overshadowing the desired inherent cinematic quality.

Luckily, since that above mentioned hipster helmsman, Edgar Wright is involved (and quite in charge the old school auteurist in me wants to shout!) and can play with the genre with a giddy, but not overblown chutzpah, rarely found in today's moviemaking community, and in doing so, creates what is essentially the most genre-accurate comic book/graphic novel adaptation this critic has ever seen.  Dissected and percolated to look like a comic up on the screen - less a movie, more a motion comic of sorts - Wright has manipulated the imagery of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into the most unique hybrid of comic book, video game and motion picture the world has ever seen (he said with a booming crescendo of dire exclamation!).  All hyperbole aside though, Scott Pilgrim is a unique creature unlike any other - even other recent graphic novel adaptations (though both with a bit more heft than here) worthy of praise, such as Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City and Zack Snyder's erroneously maligned rendition of Alan Moore's Watchmen.


Yet, even with all the CGI-created glitz and glitter, and video gaming art direction (a big part of Wright's film is how he places us inside a wholly functioning universe that seems to be the magical inner workings of a video game without ever bringing into question how or why we are in such a world) and the director's rabid faithfulness to the source material (I have gone back and perused said source material), the movie would not work if the cast did not work.  Luckily (again) the cast is outta sight.  Michael Cera, as the titular young Mr. Pilgrim, has taken his usual acerbic, soft-spoken, lovable geek persona (a persona hated by many of those aforementioned fuddy duddies, as well as the actor's very own youth culture peers - mainly for having played the same riff over and over again til almost ad nauseum) and combined it with an acerbic, soft-spoken, semi-tough guy persona, to create the perfect melange of characteristics appropriate for the role.  In other words, he is Scott Pilgrim.

Playing a 22 year old bass player (the lead singer of his band is snidely named Stephen Stills and the drummer is Scott's bitter ex-girlfriend) who must dump his seventeen year old girlfriend, Knives (an extremely naive Chinese-American Catholic school girl!?) in order to date the girl of his (literal) dreams, the multi-hair-coloured, sexy-hipster-chick-with-a-past Ramona Flowers (played with her own style of acerbic aplomb by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mostly known for playing Bruce Willis' daughter in the most recent Die Hard and, especially, her cheerleader-outfitted Grindhouse girl in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof).  The real problem comes when he finds out he must also battle the League of Evil Exes (to the death!!?) in order to keep dating Ramona.  Going through the league (all seven of them) like levels in a video game (complete with super powers and coin prizes dropping from the sky) Cera steps up his usual dry humour with some rather kick-ass (albeit in a semi-comedic style) moves. 

Also along for the ride are a slew of hilarious supporting characters.   Chris Evens as a skate-punk-turned-actor evil ex, and Superman Brandon Routh as a grown-up child of the damned, uber-vegan bass player and most evil of the evil exes are two of the highlights.  We also get the cocksure hipster-dufus extraordinaire, Jason Schwartzman as the eventual (and quite inevitable) maniacal leader of the League of Evil Exes, who of course, Scott Pilgrim will end up having to fight with in a final, top level, free-for-all battle royale - replete with Schwartzman's (and who else could have played the role!?) dubious (and quite purposefully ridiculous) posturing.  The downright funniest performance though, goes to Kieran Culkin, channeling Robert Downey Jr., as Scott's gay roommate and royal egger-on.  All this and Cera in better-than-ever form - who could ask for anything more?

Yet more is just what Wright keeps giving us.  Taking the idea of parody and/or satire and leveling it up a ratchet or three, the auteur (and yes he is!) that managed to give a heart to the zombie genre and real wit to the buddy action flick with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz respectively, now takes on the comic book and succeeds beyond any and all expectations.  Surpassing the rather sadly disappointing other attempts at such this year, namely the sporadically enjoyable but overall mediocre Kick-Ass and the lamely-concocted sophomore attempt at Iron Man (doubly disappointing due to the first one being so damned entertaining!), Wright has captured what it is like to read a comic book and/or graphic novel and in doing so has entered the world of comic book culture - and in turn that ever so-present youth culture the geezer set has so maligned.  In other words - this movie is awesome!  Generational idioms be damned!

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 08/18/2010]

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