Saturday, September 04, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

We are Sex Bob-Omb and we're here to watch Scott Pilgrim kick your teeth in!

Edgar Wright, the director of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is a film-maker who has always tried to do the absolutely most that he can even when his ambition has come up against considerable restrictions. His work on the TV series Spaced, which first brought him to my attention, sought to create a cinematic look and feel within the shabbier confines of a low-budget British sitcom, and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were largely successful at replicating distinctly American genres (zombie and buddy cop movies respectively) with decidedly English budgets.

That sense of someone trying to really push the limits of what they are able to do can also be found in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wright's most expensive film to date (its $60 million budget, whilst moderate in Hollywood terms, is three times the combined cost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and easily his most ambitious and spectacular.

Based on the Oni Press series of graphic novels by Canadian comic book artist Bryan Lee O'Malley (of which I am a big fan), the film revolves around the eponymous Pilgrim (Michael Cera) a 23-year old slacker who is in a band, out of work, and has just started dating a high schooler. Scott is directionless and still reeling from a break-up that happened over a year ago, and he longs for the simplicity of his relationship with Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).

Things get very complicated though when Scott encounters Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in a dream and instantly becomes obsessed with her. He invites her to see his band, Sex Bob-Omb, play at a battle of the bands, only for their set to be interrupted when an Indian boy comes crashing through the ceiling and informs Scott that he is Ramona's first evil ex-boyfriend, and that he must defeat all seven of them in order to date Ramona.

The original Scott Pilgrim books are sweetly melancholic books which rely on finely observed details about being a twentysomething in the early years of the twenty-first century, and a keen recreation of the atmosphere of Toronto, Canada, to make sense of the central metaphor of Scott having to come to terms with the baggage that anyone brings to a new relationship by literally having to conquer her past and defeat her boyfriends. However, since the books consist of roughly 80% introspection and atmosphere and 20% kick-ass fights, Wright and his co-writer Michael Bacall instead chose to focus on the spectacle of Scott's battles and the interplay between him and his friends at the expense of the character development.

Whilst this means that the film is shallower than the books, it's no less fun. In fact, it's possibly more fun than the books, if only because it is so concentrated. Wright and Bacall's script fizzes with an effervescent wit and energy that I found completely intoxicating, and it manages a fine balancing act between the low-key, deadpan slacker comedy that dominates the non-fight scenes, and the visceral thrills of the fights and the film's relentlessly inventive integration of videogame and comic book culture. The two halves work well when combined, such as when Scott's gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) drunkenly shouts, "Scott, it's that one guy!" since it undercuts the fantastical fight scenes without deriding them, but you could easily split the film in two and they would both work as two wildly different comedies. The biggest laughs in the film come from the combined snark of Wallace, Kim Pine (Alison Pill), Scott's somewhat embittered ex and Sex Bob-Omb's drummer, and the frequently censored factotum Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza).

The cast, in general, are fantastic, and I wouldn't be surprised if this film goes on to be considered a Rosetta stone by which people will come to understand the subsequent work of its cast, because they all deserve to be massive stars. Cera is an engaging lead and, whilst a bit more milquetoast than the Scott of the comics, he at least tones down his sad puppy dog schtick for once. The supporting cast is also very strong, but special mention should be made of Ellen Wong, who perfectly captures the manic lovesick energy and pain of Knives Chau, and Kieran Culkin, who is just wonderful as Wallace Wells and gets the balance of distant cool and affection for Scott just right.

In interviews, Wright has said that he staged the film as a musical where the characters break into battle instead of song, and it's easy to see that in the film itself since every fight feels like a huge production number. Wright and his team give each fight its own energy and feel, so they never feel repetitive even though they are very frequent, and they are packed full of so much invention that you want to go back and watch each of them even after you've just seen them. Whether it's Scott landing a 64-hit combo on Matthew Patel, or using the power of music to create a giant green-eyed Yeti of sound to crush two similar dragons, the film keeps trying to find new ways to amaze and astound. Wright is one of the few comedy directors currently working who understands that the camera can be used to make a joke just as easily as a script, and the care that has gone into staging sight gags, as well as the inclusion of some great music to match the indie milieu of the setting, show just how much he cares about making sure that the audience enjoy themselves on as many levels as possible.

Is it entirely how I imagined the books? No. Does it have the depth of the source material? No. Is it the most entertaining film of the year? Yes.