Saturday, August 14, 2010

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Great Scott!

Last week, I told some friends of mine not to be surprised if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens at #6, #4 if it's lucky. I hoped this wouldn't be so, since I love the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but I couldn't help but feel that if this movie's audience hadn't already caught in preview screenings, they would all see it at midnight opening weekend. Being a member of that midnight audience myself, I can now say that it wouldn't surprise me if my prediction still held true...but it would disappoint me. For I enjoyed myself.

Scott Pilgrim is going to get a lot of hate, and a lot of overboard adulation. It's one of those movies destined to divide those who went in ready to despise, and those willing to overlook any amount of flaws the movie has. Which it does.

Fortunately, the lead isn't one of them. Michael Cera isn't the deadpan wimp from next door, but SCOTT PILGRIM, who thinks he's funnier, cooler and nicer than he really is. Dedicated to neither the girls he dates or the band he plays bass for (SEX BOB-OMB), Scott falls head over heels for dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and has to face and accept both her past and his own so that he may earn the title of Boyfriend. Cera gets it all right: Scott's excitability, his ego, his casual mistreatment of high school girlfriend Knives Chau (best in show Ellen Wong). Cera understands the yin and the yang of Scott, the nice guy Ramona is attracted to and the asshole that breaks hearts, the fighter willing to battle for the girl he loves and the dumb kid easily distracted by the slightest thing. It's the best thing I've seen Cera do, though admittedly I've only watched Juno, Superbad and "Arrested Development".

Winstead has the more difficult role, the dream girl with barriers. Because so much of Ramona is putting up an emotional wall so she doesn't get hurt, it's hard to get close to her. Winstead works it well most of the time, though I don't completely believe that she would invite Scott home on the first date. She doesn't seem to warm to him until later, and it's only much later that we see the possibility of a relationship in her eyes. I know we find out that Ramona tends to date guys more or less "just because", but if she came to escape her past, wouldn't she try not to make the same first mistake? Maybe she can't help herself. I do believe her moments of sadness, her moments of joy, her fights and her self-imposed shield. The look on her face when she rides the bus home after the first battle impresses: you see the regret; she knows what's going to happen. Overall, though, it's a hard character to play, and a hard performance to judge.

That may have more to do with Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall's screenplay, though. In adapting six graphic novels into one two-hour movie, they've had to condense a lot, and that's fine. I can live with most of Kim Pine's stuff being dropped (Alison Pill is a good enough actress to fill in those blanks on her own), and I'm ok that we never learn that everyone but Scott has a job (a point of contention for some), and the movie works fine without Scott living with Ramona (weird beat, anyway). But a lot of the relationship between Scott and Ramona seems to have been cut in favor of the fight scenes and video game references. One date montage will not suffice for me. This is the core of the film here, I need more. Part of the testament to Winstead's talent is that she does manage to convey some of her feelings, but the script does not fully allow her to do it.

And yet, a lot of what they get right, they get so right. Turning chief baddie Gideon Graves (deliciously played by Jason Schwartzman) into a more oily, Swan-like villain was a stroke of genius. Indeed, except for how simultaneously rushed and overlong the final sequence is, it is here that Wright and Bacall make their most ingenious departures from the source material.  The Japanese Twins get as little screentime as they did pagetime, but Wright not only gives them a fantastic battle sequence -- my personal favorite, in fact -- he makes Sex Bob-Omb more central to Scott's strengths. Using the original Legend of Zelda menu music for the opening scene does more to establish the tone and mindset than any original score could do. Which is not to deride Nigel Godrich's score, either, which serves as a great complement to the action sequences.

And oh, those action sequences. From Street Fighter to Guitar Hero, the multitude of game references for each battle are more than hilarious -- they actually serve the narrative! The VFX range from intentionally cartoony to nearly imperceptible. I'm talking dragons, hipster demons, power swords. It's here that we get that "epic epic of epic-ness" the poster promised. True, the first one goes on for way too long (the musical number is a bit much), but generally they're a good time. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh are suitably hilarious, reminding once again that they really are more than just pretty faces, and that Routh really needs a bigger career. Mae Whitman makes the most of her limited screentime, with a fun Southern accent and an unforgettable battle cry. And those twins! So cool!

You got to give Edgar Wright props for bringing it all together. Not everything works, but Wright gets good work from his ensemble (casting by Robin D. Cook, Jennifer Euston and Allison Jones) and keeps the movie going at a quick but manageable pace. Some editing choices at the beginning kept me from getting fully engrossed in the story.  Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss work great with the action sequences, but there's so much information and character stuff preceding The First Battle, it gets difficult to follow. Still, if there's one thing you can always give Edgar Wright props for, it's for managing to keep a challenging tone consistent. That he manages to do so while still offering fully fleshed-out characters and a satisfying arc is a testament to both his fine work with actors and his understanding of the material. Besides, he nails every laugh perfectly, and that's hard to do.

Production design and art direction (Marcus Rowland & Nigel Churcher), costume design (Laura Jean Shannon), cinematography (Bill Pope): all great. It really is a tremendous film, a solid three out of four stars, a fantastic B+. I don't think it's for everyone, but I think if you're willing to go into the film's hyperactive world and play by its rules, you'll have a pretty awesome time.

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