'Scott Pilgrim': Style Over Substance
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I was worried that my personal history -- a youth spent in Canada marinated in indie rock, a sincere appreciation of the source material -- would make me an easy touch for "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," Edgar Wright's big-screen adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part "graphic novel" saga of love (with kung-fu clashes) among Toronto's hipsters. The briefly amusing contradiction in reality is that "Scott Pilgrim" is a comic book influenced by video games and films that is now a film (and, of course, in our overleveraged age, a video game). But as pop culture sits down at the table to eat itself in true post-modern style, with Wright's knives and forks flashing as he serves the film up, something gets lost. Perhaps story; perhaps heart. "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is bright and broad and amusing and funny, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland (and as, let's face it, could be said of Toronto), there's no there there. It's a conundrum: Rarely are we offered such obvious verve and wit and panache and technical brilliance, but it's nearly impossible to truly feel what all that verve, wit, panache and technical brilliance are supposedly trying to convey.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a bassist and slacker, inadvisably dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) when he comes across Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is literally the girl of his dreams. But Scott will have to fight for Ramona's love, as claiming her heart requires battling her seven evil exes, each of whom is a fighting force propelled by resentment and ruined romance. What was established in the yearlong timeframe of O'Malley's original work -- and glossed over in Wright's flashy, fizzy confection -- is that Scott's real enemy is himself, his selfishness and shabbiness, and the indecisive affections of the uncertain heart.
Wright is an immensely talented filmmaker -- think of him as the light, fun version of Oliver Stone. Like Stone at his most loopy, Wright is acutely aware of the possibilities of film as a medium -- something to be altered, cut, edited, festooned with effects and shaped by the work of many hands. And like Quentin Tarantino, he's a voracious consumer of other films and the tricks and tropes of other movies. And, as with both of those filmmakers, you also come away with the feeling that there might not be much going on besides technical brilliance and pop-culture savvy. Wright's "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" were diverting genre spoofs that, for all their flaws, were propelled by character and feeling. With "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," it feels like Wright's moving away from charm and character and instead toward spectacle and speed. "Scott Pilgrim" is undeniably the biggest and most expensive canvas Wright's been given to work with, and yet the actual work itself has never seemed more shallow.
Cinematographer Bill Pope does excellent work, much in the mold of his work on the "Spider-Man" films, where he makes moving images burst with the frozen dynamism of comic-book illustrations that were originally made to evoke the frenzy of motion, another circular trip down the 21st-century pop-culture rabbit hole. The soundtrack is excellent, from Nigel Godrich's original music to soundtrack singles from the likes of Beck and Metric. The special effects blur and bloom with excitement.
But there's nothing here with the heart of "The Princess Bride," a film that found real truth about love in a fantastic setting by never giving in to fun over feeling. Or with the heartfelt genius of Joachim Trier's "Reprise," a stunningly good film about youth and young manhood that was shot with wit and verve but still had heart and soul. When Jason Schwartzman shows up, all you can think of is "Rushmore" -- a film that takes place in a world as fantastic and improbable as "Scott Pilgrim"'s but keeps the focus on real pain, real loss, real sadness and felt like an instant classic. I wanted to feel a heartbeat in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," but instead I found myself kept out by the buff, brawny muscle and swift skill of it. If it sounds like I'm condemning "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" not for being bad, but, rather, for not being as great as it could have been, then I'm guilty as charged of failing to simply enjoy what could have been a mere guilty pleasure.
Wright seems content to have Cera play the same hesitant nebbish he's always played, despite the fact that the Pilgrim character in the source material starts strong, yet wrong, and moves toward being right and real over a year, not the film's rushed, racing, dayslong time frame. In the books, you can buy Scott Pilgrim fighting for love. In the film, Cera barely seems like he'd know how to fight for air even after he's shown to be a martial arts machine. Wright, it must be said, can truly shoot a fight scene. It also has to be said that I never really cared what the fight scenes were for.
There are standouts in the acting cast: Brandon Routh and Chris Evans make for great lunkheaded bad guys, and Mark Webber and Kieran Culkin pop and snap as Scott's confidants and friends. But "Scott Pilgrim" devotes itself so firmly to re-creating the look of O'Malley's saga that it forces and fumbles the feel, full of (indie-rock) sound and (kung-fu) fury, (emotionally) signifying nothing. (Many modern films are dismissed with the phrase "It was like a video game." Worse than that, "Scott Pilgrim" feels like watching someone else play a video game.) Wright's work was originally praised for its energetic technique and throwaway jokes, but with "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," the inventions and technique just feel frenetic and exhausting, and it's not the jokes that are disposable but, instead, the movie.