Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) has done the improbable: converted Bryan Lee O'Malley's insightful, satirical, emotional, and award-winning series of six graphic novels into a film with a runtime of under two hours. That's not the improbable part - it's that, even having read all of the books, the film feels totally complete and still manages to capture the modern zeitgeist of the under-30 crowd with an ease I've never seen before. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a modern classic, an ode to the video game crowd and all of the self-centered slacker protagonists out there, presenting audiences with a visually astounding piece of cinema that may not make the most at the box office this weekend, but will surely be considered a cinematic milestone for years to come.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Co-writer/Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh


22-year-old Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is dating Knives Chau (Wong), a high school girl. He plays bass for Sex Bob-omb, his band named after enemies in the Mario video game series. But when Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Winstead), everything changes for him. After ditching Knives, Scott must defeat Ramona's seven evil exes in order to continue dating her. Through a series of video-game influenced fights mixed with dialogue that completely gets the notions of love and relationships among modern 20-somethings, the film charges forward with breakneck speed and dazzling (yes, dazzling) visuals that are some of the most entertaining I've ever seen. This is a brutally inadequate plot summary, but I won't take away from the film by detailing the plot any further.


The casting here is outstanding. I've said before that other movies have been "perfectly cast," but this one tops every one in recent memory. Each actor absolutely disappears into his/her role: granted, not a tough task considering the casting director managed to miraculously find actors and actresses who both physically resemble their graphic novel counterpoints (to scary degrees, sometimes - Aubrey Plaza, I'm looking at you) and effortlessly assume aspects of their character's personalities. Cera, the actor with whom I had the most concern before I saw the film, certainly used his stereotypical mumbling awkward shtick at times - but he also plowed through this film with such a convincingly physical performance that it should effectively shatter the popular notion that he plays the same character in every movie.


My favorite Cera moment comes in the first fight scene - a character challenges Scott in front of a huge crowd, and Scott instantly starts using martial arts. It's implied that Scott doesn't even know that he has these abilities, since everyone [including his sister Stacy (played by Anna Kendrick)] reacts in a shocked and confused manner when the fight breaks out. But then everyone just blindly accepts the fact that Scott can fight (very well, actually), and no one ever mentions it again. That's the kind of movie this is: one in which the Universal logo appears in 8-bit form, characters occasionally break into song, conjure up dueling dragons, get hurled through walls only to jump back up again, and bad guys burst into thousands of coins while video game scores pop up on screen.


I think this is one of the most perfect film adaptations of all time. Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall were able to incorporate O'Malley's original source material into the final film (sometimes word for word, as this awesome fan-created trailer shows), but - and here's the important part - they weren't afraid to divulge from the graphic novels. We hear cries from the internet on a daily basis demanding that writers and directors respect the source material for cinematic adaptations, and I understand that need to protect what's special about the property; it's the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. But no one wants to see a literal direct translation from comic (or novel, etc.) to film with no differences at all, do they? Even if you do, it's impossible - the nature of the various mediums don't allow for literal translations.

But sometimes filmmakers aim to try to recreate the source material anyway, even though it's almost always detrimental to the movie. Ask Zack Snyder: Watchmen was a brilliant graphic novel, but didn't reach its true potential as a film that could stand on its own because it was too concerned with not letting down ardent fans of the source material. Here, Wright and Bacall keep the absolute essence of the Scott Pilgrim tale and have no qualms adding or subtracting plot points when necessary to enhance the cinematic story. That's what I mean by "perfect adaptation" - not a literal translation, but instead a complete and utter understanding of what made the original story great, coupled with skillful writing and the boldness to step out from the shadow of O'Malley's creation and add their own elements.

(Gratuitous Mary Elizabeth Winstead picture.)

Wright brings his signature brand of insanity behind the camera, and creates one of the most visually intriguing films I've ever seen. No other movie comes close to the look of this film. It plays like a comic book, transitioning crazily through panels and split screens, with anime-inspired highlights during dramatic moments and Wright's patented whip pans and tilts serving as a perfect match for the style and humor of the film. I can't imagine this movie directed by anyone else, and Wright has secured a spot on my favorite filmmakers list with this film (he's three for three now, in my opinion). The editing is incredible (it should be nominated for an Academy Award, but probably won't), and the pacing is unrelenting, at one point taking us through multiple places during the course of a single sentence.

Music has massive importance in this film, providing another bridge to connect to younger audiences. The fictional Sex Bob-omb's music was performed by Beck, and Broken Social Scene doubled for an opposing group during Battle of the Bands sequences. But the best song of the film belongs to Metric, a real band subbing in for The Clash at Demonhead (Scott's ex is the lead singer of this band in the movie). (Check out the entire soundtrack, now streaming on Spinner.com.) Not only is the band music important in order to convince us that we're listening to a "real" band on screen, but the notion of music itself is a big part of the Scott Pilgrim universe. As the camera floats through clubs and parties, you'll hear background characters talking about how a certain band's "first album is so much better than their first album" or, after watching a band play live, someone say "you should see them play live." All of these little asides are O'Malley's, Bacall's, and Wright's way of commenting on hipster culture - an interesting thing to point out, since most people seem to associate this film with hipsters and the movie clearly rails against the most annoying subset of them.


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an achievement on technical and stylistic levels, a personal movie that comfortably locks down its place as a modern classic for my generation and ensuring cult classic status as soon as the current hype wears off. I'd go as far as to say that future filmmakers will cite this film as inspiration much like the current generation cites the original Star Wars. This one's a game changer, friends, and it's a flawless victory. Until next time...

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