Portrait of the Avatar as a Young Man
Edgar Wright was the perfect choice to bring Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comic book series to the big screen. Wright’s previous features — the masterful Shaun of the Dead and the only slightly less impressive Hot Fuzz — are standouts because, in an era of sarcasm and winking irony, his stories refuse to become parodies and instead wholeheartedly embrace their seemingly irreconcilable extremes. Shaun of the Dead isn’t just a comedy, and it isn’t just a horror film. It’s both, through and through, giving equal weight to the punch lines and shock moments. Ditto Hot Fuzz, which in lesser hands would have been a spoof along the lines of the odious Scary Movie franchise, but with Wright at the helm (and Simon Pegg again co-writing, as he did on Shaun) was a legitimately exciting thriller that was also an accomplished comedic love letter to the past quarter-century of action trash. Wright’s a master at living in the tension, unwilling to sacrifice one side of a story for the other.
He had his work cut out for him with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The comic books in question are about a twentysomething Canadian geek and musician who falls in love with a girl who turns out to have seven evil exes that he must fight, video game-style, to win her hand. The hyperkinetic blend of fantasy and quasi-reality works pretty well on the page, but turning it into something cinematic adds a new level of complication. It’s one thing to create a recognizable if slightly fantastical world on screen, in which characters are introduced via cutesy text bubbles and in which comic book and gaming iconography make regular appearances. (E.g., a character enters a bathroom with an animated “Pee Meter” floating above his head, with the meter depleting as he empties his bladder.) But it’s a whole other to double down on that fantasy and take it to the necessarily cartoonish levels created in the comic, wherein the hero finds himself suddenly drawn into insane, reality-bending battles with an escalating series of enemies who can levitate, shatter walls, and generally perform like constructs from the Matrix. What starts out as a comedy with comic book stylings becomes a far more surreal and genre-bending experience, but that’s where Wright eats and sleeps. That’s where he makes his home. And because of that, there are moments in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that are absolutely fantastic, full of heart-pumping, chord-strumming, toe-tapping utter rock joy that bleeds from the edges of the frame. When it flies, it does so with an energy and verve and wit rare in pop comedies and totally absent from comic book movies.
And yet: There is, throughout, an inescapable sense of tedium that periodically rears its head, and the disappointing thing is how it often tends to accompany those special moments when the film strives to be all things. For every rule-breaking bit of glee that comes along, there are dozens more instances that feel flat and dead, and it’s because the weight of trying to do so much took a toll on all involved. The fight scenes are part and parcel of the film, but almost all of them are laughable and alienating, somehow less involving than even the simplest cartoon. They’re like old video games in the worst way: A barrage of meaningless hits and kicks, with no penalties or pain for anyone. Things happen, then they don’t. Repeat.
Scott (Michael Cera) is an average slacker: He’s got a roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), he’s in a band called Sex Bob-omb with Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), and he has no discernible motivation or skills or source of income. He’s also carrying on an ill-advised relationship with a high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who obsesses over Scott and the band, when Scott meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and falls quickly and hopelessly in love. Politely wheedling his way into a date, he soon finds himself in a relationship with his dream girl, leaving Knives out in the cold. Wright moves breezily through all this, coasting through the story with quick continuity cuts that re-create the feel of moving briskly through the panels of a comic, and he also decorates the edges of the film with graphic novel flourishes, like the quickly displayed “CLIK” when a light comes on. It’s only when the real story kicks in and Scott discovers that he has to kill Ramona’s evil exes that the film hits some hiccups. We’re in a universe of dreams made real, of physics bent and time compressed, and sometimes Wright manages to keep all the plates spinning and create something that feels like its organically transforming from comedy to comic to cartoon in one fluid motion. More often than not, though — too often for its own good — the film shifts jarringly from one tonality to the other. Sometimes it’s a self-aware comedy populated with real people, while others it’s a re-enacted video game stocked with bad guys that turn into coins when you kill them, and those worlds don’t reconcile themselves well in the same filmic space.
This is also the latest Michael Cera film in which he plays a very slightly altered version of the screen persona he debuted in “Arrested Development,” an autistic level of focus on awkward pauses being his sole gift. He seems for all the world to be a sweet and charming young man — his c.v. is so packed it’s easy to forget he’s just 22 — but it’s becoming less and less possible to get invested in watching him do the same thing time after time. Generations of movie stars have made careers out of doing something interesting over and over again, of bringing the same definable screen presence to every role. Cary Grant did this. Jack Nicholson did this. Cera wants to do this, but the problem isn’t that he’s trying to trot out an old classic; it’s that the old classic isn’t worth trotting out. His stammering, bird-like presence makes him a watery anchor in Wright’s film, and it doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by convincing character actors who’ve found much better outlet for their focused creations, like Anna Kendrick’s clipped, bossy sister or Aubrey Plaza’s morose frenemy or Culkin’s generally laid-back dude. Everyone’s working a basic stereotype, but they all manage to make them less mealy-mouthed and more enjoyable than Cera does with Scott. It’s because we haven’t seen it as much from, and also because they’re just better.
Still, there are some good moments: The screenplay from Wright and Michael Bacall is packed with snappy wit drawn from O’Malley’s world, and Wright’s a master at hilarious reaction shots that deliver sharp jokes with nothing more than a quick image. The film also sports a killer soundtrack: Beck composed the tunes played by Scott’s band, and they’ve got a gritty, lo-fi edge that makes them the ideal rock anthems for a band of reluctant young warriors. The band’s name, however — Sex Bob-omb — is an obscure reference to a character in the Super Mario Bros. game franchise, which makes for potentially trippy levels of self-referential love in a movie about video games based on a comic book and in which characters look like real people but are actually nothing more than digital composites of something resembling humans. That insularity is ultimately where the film begins and ends. Wright’s latest genre mash-up is a messy, muddy one that inverts his old rule: Instead of marrying opposing ideas by taking them seriously, he conjoins two identical worlds and refuses to make them worth caring about. Instead of a film that remembers what came before, it’s in love merely with the concept of remembering, and it’s as fleeting and forgettable as the lost references uttered like shibboleths by the characters that sound to everyone else like so much empty noise. After all, when your hero can just hit the reset button, it’s awfully hard to worry about him.