Scott Pilgrim vs The World

August 29, 2010

As much as I have fond memories of my childhood and the frivolities of life as a youngster, I can’t help but find certain hipster trends in recent years both shallow and regressive.  Yes, I loved playing SNES games and arcade fighters and I loved the Smashing Pumpkins, but referencing the obsessions of a bygone era does not endear me to the nostalgia-laden world that people selling Megaman t-shirts and and their chillwave bands are basking in.  Not to denigrate the cultural touchstones of a generation, obviously including my own, but the mere mention of a tanooki suit does not fill me warm, fuzzy feelings and it certainly does not elicit a chuckle.  Such are the dangers of geekdom, for making some ‘shit that is awesome’ is not enough to generally enough to make that same ‘shit’ interesting, and certainly not if the only thing ‘awesome’ about it is that it stirs up memories of my life as an 11 year old.  After all, ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.

The joy, then, of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World (and I do call it his, because no matter the source material he has to understand how to make it work on screen) is it’s almost total avoidance of the nostalgia traps that so many similar endeavors would fall into.  First and foremost, the pop art visuals and reference-laden gags and sounds are less about ‘hey, remember this?’ and more about the characters not knowing anything else.  It infuses their world, and rather than drawing attention to it, Wright acts as thought it has always been there, and perhaps (damningly) always will be.  So woven into the fabric of the film is video game culture that it doesn’t feel like a quirk that the Universal music is remade as a chiptune diddy.

The plot is simple enough, though admirably slightly more complicated than one might expect going into this kind of summer-kitsch fluff.  Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, doing well at what he always does) has started seeing impressionable and, eventually, love struck high schooler Knives Chau.  He puts up with the flack from his friends over the age difference because, as a 22-year-old slacker in a fledgling band, he strongly desires the ego boost.  Things change when he has a dream in which a mysterious woman appears, and like magic, he sees her in (where else?) the library.  She is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and American with ever-changing hair colours in what must be a nod to the queen of the beautiful-but-damaged indie girl, Kate Winslet’s Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  These are easy shadings to build a character quickly and from nothing, and even in Ramona never comes fully into her own, she works well enough as both a credible object of affection and a complicated-enough person to warrant the narrative directions the film will eventually take Scott.  The obvious get-out for these kinds of manic pixie dream girls it that, from the perspective of the whimpering indie boy, they aren’t generally three dimensional, but that’s kind of a cheat and doesn’t wholly apply hear.  Digression over.

The early stages of the film work the best, and while not to take away from the excitement and visual bang of the fight sequences, this is where the story and the characters are on surer footing.  There are difficult situations for Scott to navigate, and his character is sufficiently developed for us to understand and dismay at his behaviour, and while I might have preferred to spend more time in this section of the story, the fighting is good enough and the film, well, shallow enough, that I got the impression that I probably wasn’t missing too terribly much.  The fights themselves are across-the-board impressive and, most importantly, a shedload of fun.  Operating like songs from a musical, they draw not just from arcade fighters but skateboarding games and Guitar Hero, and if those attempts to keep six fights totally fresh don’t work on their own, there’s enough visual interest and subtle comedy punctuated throughout that it never gets too dull.  The bass duel sequence is probably the saggiest, but its vegan jokes are enough to forgive it the feel of repetition.

Likewise the climactic battle, which features a rather obvious end, is not played for surprising twist value but rather for emotional catharsis.  It gets jumbled a bit, to be sure, but there was enough foresight to realize what would and wouldn’t work here, and attempting an emotional rather than a spectacle payoff is almost always more gratifying.  The visuals helpfully echo this course, as although they are heavily stylized, they are never (until the finale) without a recognizable starting point.  It is, in the end, and incredibly fun film, and the kind of giddy summer ride I’m often bemoaning the lack of in the multiplexes.  It isn’t particularly deep, though credit where credit is due, it felt like the supporting characters had a lot more to them, and I can say that this is probably the first film I’ve seen since The Golden Compass that makes me want to go out and read the source material.  Key to keeping the ship afloat, as mentioned earlier, is the refusal to play on the nostalgic impulses of the audience.  The style and essence of everything that happens comes from the characters and the world as they understand and experience it, and that’s where the enjoyment for the viewer comes from.  It’s not a shameless play on shared memories, but an affectionate gander into the pop culture infestation of the lives onscreen.

-M

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