Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
While acknowledging that it’s impossible to argue someone into loving something they hate, and vice versa, it’s still often enjoyable to attempt the argument. When we talk to people whose opinions directly contradict ours, we’re forced to defend our tastes, define our opinions, and analyze why we react the way we do. Which is why we’re launching a crosstalk feature called Why Don’t You Like This?, in which two of our staffers will attempt to discover whether people with opposing opinions can get beyond “No, you’re wrong!” and have a civil, constructive, and possibly even convincing discussion about their points of contention. Because no matter what talk radio says, there’s still a middle ground between “We agree utterly” and “I’m right, and you’re stupid and evil.”
Tasha: All right, Scott. I’ve asked you many times before, and now I’m asking you again in public: Why don’t you like the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World? It’s a reasonably respectful film adaptation of a comic-book series you like, but it isn’t slavish or predictable. It was written and directed by Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz co-writer/director Edgar Wright, whose work has impressed you in the past. It’s exactly the kind of film A.V. Clubbers normally fall for: ambitious, idiosyncratic, creative, and fully realized as a highly textured, impressively detail-oriented vision. And yet it fell flat for you, both upon original release (when you gave it a C+, marking it as only slightly above average) and upon a recent re-watch, where you hoped you’d find out what the rest of us see in it.
You certainly aren’t alone in your ambivalence about it; it drew reasonably favorable reviews, but it was a disappointment at the box office. But you’re definitely on the lowest end of the A.V. Club spectrum of opinion. (Nathan and I both put it on our top 10 list for 2010; it was my No. 3, and it’s my most rewatched film of 2010; Keith is a fan as well.) So where did this film go so wrong for you? It can’t be that your expectations for the latest Wright outing were too high; you don’t believe in judging a film by your expectations. You don’t necessarily hate videogames, or Michael Cera, which were supposedly two of the elements that kept casual viewers away. We’ve talked about this one a lot, and it’s always seemed to me that your core dislike is based on the feeling that the film doesn’t accomplish certain things—which in my opinion, it was never setting out to do. So let’s talk about these things. This is a great film, Scott. Why don’t you love it as it deserves to be loved?
Scott: Well, to undermine the entire premise of this piece, let me say this: I do not dislike Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. A C+ puts me on the slightly negative side of the ledger; had I gone with a B-, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. “Ambivalent” is the right word, because Scott Pilgrim is far from a ho-hum mediocrity; it’s the sort of strong, audacious personal vision that rarely emerges from the studio system. If you read my review, you’ll find that I reserve plenty of praise for Wright’s direction, particularly his dazzlingly elastic use of CGI, and a script that carries over much of the droll wit from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels. My problem with Scott Pilgrim is simply this: The material does not work as a movie. It’s enervating when it should be exhilarating, mainly because stringing together O’Malley’s books—and the “seven evil exes” battles therein—gives it a lumpy, episodic pace for which no amount of visual inventiveness can compensate.
Movieline critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote the following statement, which I think applies: “We’ve entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn’t nearly the same thing.” Zacharek was writing about Inception, a movie I think successfully marries spectacle with substance, but I’ve found that sentiment echoing through my mind ever since. I call them “Comic Con movies,” assemblages of awesome stuff like Sucker Punch (Schoolgirls kicking ass! Nazi robot monsters! Dragons!) and Drive Angry (Nicolas Cage shot out of hell! Slo-mo bloodbaths aplenty! Non-stop badassery! In 3-D!) that are not, in fact, awesome. The latter, I compared to a Steve Vai solo album: That much virtuosity, without modulation, can wind up seeming paradoxically bland and homogenous.
Now, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a more substantial effort by far, but Wright’s moment-by-moment inventiveness in bringing O’Malley’s work to appropriately comic-book-y life comes at the expense of the larger picture. I feared that maybe I just didn’t connect with it on first viewing—as you say, I’ve liked Wright’s work in the past, and this movie is as A.V. Clubby as it gets—but a re-watch confirmed it: By the time Cera’s Scott Pilgrim entered into his protracted final duel with Evil Ex No. 7, played by Jason Schwartzman, the film had worn me out, much like a child coming down from a sugar high. Perhaps it’s a consequence of fidelity, with Wright so keen on doing justice to O’Malley’s books that he neglected to give the film its own shape. Or maybe it has something to do with my Michael Cera allergy. If the center of a film doesn’t hold, how far can greatness on the periphery really take it?
Let me ask you this: What keeps you coming back to this movie? Are there subtle grace notes that I’m missing in all that visual overload? Also: Can you defend Cera’s casting here?
Tasha: Let’s start with that last point. Yes, I can defend Michael Cera’s casting, because it’s fairly brilliant. At the point when Scott Pilgrim came out, I was hugely sick of the one mopey, wide-eyed, shy, stumbling kid he’s played since Arrested Development. (In a public Q&A here in Chicago after a screening of Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist, he outright said that he’d developed his Arrested Development character with Mitchell Hurwitz, and that people liked it and kept asking for it, so he’s just kept doing it ever since.) But Scott Pilgrim is very aware of Cera’s history with this character, and the film openly parodies it. Scott Pilgrim in this movie is initially a delusional, pathetic whiner, a selfish twerp with an outsized ego—and I see him as a direct commentary on Cera’s wimp-hero characters in the likes of Superbad, Nick And Norah, and Juno. When he slumps against the refrigerator in Scott Pilgrim, moaning to his roommate “You know what really sucks? Everything!,” or wails that breaking up with his “fake high-school girlfriend” just because he’s seeing someone else would be “haaaaaaaaard,” he’s encouraging viewers to laugh at his wussiness, self-absorption, and ineffectuality—and by extension, all his past roles that made these things into sensitive-kid virtues.
Really, my only problem with Scott Pilgrim as a film is that Cera’s casting may date it. Twenty years from now, with Cera presumably no longer in the midst of a boom of playing the same role over and over, a satire of that role may not play as intelligently onscreen, and his ability to laugh at himself may not be as funny. But that’s something for another generation to worry about.
As for subtle grace notes, I think the movie is full of them, and Cera’s self-mocking performance is among them, largely because it underlines what the movie is really about. I’ve defended this movie over and over to people, and it seems like if they’ve actually seen the movie and didn’t like it, the point they always return to is that the relationship between Cera and love interest Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn’t convincing enough, or touching enough, as a romance; it’s hard to believe they care about each other enough to justify the battles he endures on her behalf throughout the movie.
This criticism drives me crazy, because every grace note, as you put it, throughout the movie clarifies that they don’t care about each other. They’re both immature and self-absorbed. He thinks her colorful hair and clothes and accessories and prettiness and attitude make her cool, and he wants to be near them—he doesn’t know her as a person at all, and doesn’t make much effort to know her. She’s largely indifferent to him, and makes that very clear with every eye-roll and sigh; when he gets caught up in battling her exes, it isn’t something she chose, and she barely seems invested in the outcome until she has to get physically involved herself. Both of them actually give very funny, human performances under all the CGI and fast-paced banter, in part because the film’s over-the-top humor gives them both the freedom to be unlikeable, ridiculous people. It ends with them both growing up a little and deciding they should maybe make that first stab at having a real relationship, but it’s more about how ridiculous they are, both in their heads and in the world, than about True Love. All the grace notes, all the little touches in the writing and the performances, are about letting the audience in on the gag.
And that’s what keeps me coming back to the movie. There’s a lot to see, sure. The pacing goes quickly enough that it’s easy to miss punchlines—what you call enervating, I find exhilarating. I love a movie that challenges me to keep up, and rewards me if I do. A second viewing makes it possible to catch gags that went by in a blur the first time, and a third makes it clear that there’s a lot of subtle care and thought going into every frame under the blur of banter and splashy effects.
I see why you’d apply Stephanie Zacharek’s gripe to this film, given that it does have a more-is-more visual aesthetic and a roller-coaster momentum. But frankly, I find the statement “movies can no longer be great, they can only be awesome” ridiculously defeatist and dismissive of all the great current movies that aren’t in any way trying to be Sucker Punch or Priest or Fast Five or Drive Angry. Yes, there are all-frosting, no-cake movies, and some of them try too hard and fail, while some of them are good dumb fun. But that doesn’t describe all movies, and I don’t feel that it describes this one. All of those movies are trying to be super-badass movies about super-badasses kicking ass. Scott Pilgrim is something totally different: a lighthearted coming-of-age comedy.
But I’m willing to hear arguments otherwise. Yes, you praised Scott Pilgrim’s visuals, but you also gave it a C+, which you say puts you on the “slightly negative side of the ledger”—but for me, what you’re saying is, “This film is just slightly above average.” So what drags it down to that point for you? I’m hearing a lot of possibly grudging praise, and generalities like “the material does not work as a movie” and “the center does not hold” and “virtuosity, without modulation, can wind up seeming paradoxically bland and homogenous.” It can, sure. But does it? Let’s get down to brass tacks, Scott. What specifically does this movie set out to do and do poorly, or not set out to do at all, that caused you to dismiss “the sort of strong, audacious personal vision that rarely emerges from the studio system” as just-above-average? If it doesn’t work as a movie, why not?
Scott: Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim doing a satirical commentary on Michael Cera roles past? Not entirely buying it. The difference between Cera’s character here and his character on Arrested Development or in movies like Juno or Superbad is that he’s at another stage in his life. When you’re in high school (or earlier), being open and earnest and blinkered and a little immature isn’t necessarily frowned upon. You’re still developing and are not at an age where that development could be considered “arrested.” But when you’re Scott Pilgrim, a 23-year-old layabout who’s dating a high-school girl, you’ve run out of excuses. As Scott Pilgrim, Cera is taking his turn in the most ubiquitous character type in contemporary comedy, that of the immature (but sensitive) twentysomething slacker who refuses to grow up until events in the film conspire to thrust him into adulthood. The following young male comedic actors have played this role at one time or another: All of them.
That said, I do love your read on the relationship between Scott Pilgrim and Mary-Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers, about them being too caught up in mutual self-absorption to really get to know each other. I understood it more as his infatuation being met by her indifference, but when you’re not a mature person, that kind of infatuation demands no reciprocation. It just becomes part of your own personal drama, and I think you’re right to see the ending as the first time when Scott and Ramona truly relate to each other and “take a stab at a real relationship.” One thing that you don’t mention is how the “seven evil exes” figures into it, and I think that’s both important and revealing of the film’s (and Cera’s) shortcomings. To me, the seven evil exes are a comic book-y literalization of an issue many people have in a relationship: They have to get past the fact that their new boyfriend or girlfriend has a romantic history and are bringing that emotional baggage with them. Part of Scott’s maturation process is to “overcome” these obstacles and accept that Ramona has a past, but what this demands of Cera, I think, is a little passion. Passion has never been an item in Cera’s emotional toolbox, but if we’re to believe he’s infatuated with Ramona, he has to bring that across, and he never does. Scott Pilgrim may be a critique, however intended, of Cera’s signature wimpy disaffection, but what we see in the film is the same performance that we’ve seen before. He winds up disappearing at the center of his own movie.
As for why I ultimately can’t embrace the film, Cera is part of it, but really, I don’t think Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World works as a movie. Wright falls into the adaptation trap: He wants to do justice to the books—and does incredible things to carry across their graphic dynamism on screen (if this movie isn’t the best-ever use of CGI for live-action, it’s certainly up there)—but the books are divided into brief, digestible parts that, on film, add up to a gluttonous whole. For example, Wright finds ways to give each fight its own visual and tonal flavor, but by the time we get to the protracted climactic showdown with Jason Schwartzman’s Big Bad, I’d had enough of the relentless banter and swish-pans and wanted the film to end. (Which it did gracefully, I should note.) It’s not my habit to submit middle-of-the-road reviews for films I find audacious and exciting, but that’s where my ambivalence took me in this case.
And with that, I hereby resign my membership in The A.V. Club. It was a good run.