Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

It's been a good media week at the Speculative household. Currently I'm reading a collection of the best twenty science fiction stories of 1939, edited by Isaac Asimov. The new Arcade Fire CD, The Suburbs, came out, and it's getting a lot of airplay in our house and cars. And then, on Wednesday, I scored a couple of free passes to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, so we went to check it out last night. The end result is a mild dispute in the Speculator household: Mrs. Speculator describes the movie as "delightful" while I say it is "charming."

All kidding aside, I went into the movie expecting flashing lights and special effects from console games I have never heard of. I think this was the intent of the trailers and commercials, to make the potential audience think that was Scott Pilgrim was, but as is usually the case, they turned out to be not true. Instead, what unfolded was a delightfully charming coming of age movie with an appeal to the adolescent crowd as well as to adults who've already learned the lessons the film sometimes ham-handedly imparts.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is in his early 20s, living in Toronto, and still trying to figure out his place in life. It's no help that he still hasn't recovered from his break-up with Envy, lead singer of a band that has now hit it big, even though the split was over a year ago. Scott apparently has no job and spends his time thinking about the questions that plague twenty-somethings, playing with his band Sex-Bob-Omb, and hanging out with his friends, including new girlfriend Knives Chau (played endearingly by Ellen Wong). Unfortunately most of his friends are his age and pretty much as clueless as he is, though they are more than willing to offer advice to help him get by and to mock Scott for his high school-aged new girlfriend (with whom he has held hands once).

Into this life (that most adults would consider carefree but adolescents would feel is oppressed with weighty issues) skates Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the attractive, similarly aged American girl. That she is cool is obvious and a stark contrast to bulk of Scott's friends. But Scott is smitten, so off he goes to pursue her against the warnings (and frankly some threats) of his friends. And behold there is some sort of crazy chemistry between them: Scott forever unsure about his next step when he is not playing his bass and Ramona, patiently confident about everything. Or, as we eventually learn, only apparently so confident.

Eventually, as Scott and Ramona grow closer, her past begins to interfere with their relationship, especially since it takes the form of the League of Evil Exes, all apparently intent on killing Scott and winning Ramona's favor again. The exes appear at random yet appropriately inconvenient times—the first as Sex-Bob-Omb is playing in a battle of the bands to get a recording contract—and the fights that are the highlights of the trailer and commercials take place. These action sequences are where the martial arts and gameplay effects come out full force, and they are really quite powerful action sequences filmed with a knowledge of and love for both video games and traditional martial arts movies. But they aren't the entirety of the movie, and the rest is whimsical and thoughtful as Scott grows increasingly frustrated with Ramona's exes coming out of the woodwork to attack him.

There are many levels of humor taking place in this movie, between the sly nudge-wink of how "horrible" Scott's life is to an homage to Seinfeld, complete with score and laugh track, to broad slapstick and even some farce. Perhaps the funniest bits in the movie concern Evil Ex #3, an avowed Vegan, whose lifestyle gives him extraordinary and supernatural powers, because as Scott's friends point out to him, "everyone knows Vegans are better than everyone else."

It's easy enough to go along for the ride as Scott tries to figure out the right things to do and how to defeat the Evil Exes, but director Edgar Wright has also carefully crafted the story of a young man's first adult relationship into the framework of the movie. Until he meets Ramona, Scott has always dated "safe" girls, girls he grew up with or who are much younger than him. But Ramona is different, completely outside his sphere, and his attraction to her is different as well—he dreams of her before he even meets her; she is literally his dream girl. And because the relationship grows deeper than he has ever experienced, he has to deal with issues he's not had to deal with before, like Ramona's past which literally keeps coming up between them before Ramona runs away from it. And eventually, Scott's own past come up as well, such that Scott has to begin to take stock of how he has lived his life thus far. The game effects that are so visually striking are a young man's coping mechanism—using the only tools he has—until he can develop an adult's toolset to deal with difficult subjects.

As the movie winds down to its conclusion, the metaphors become harder and harder to ignore—Scott earns the Sword of Love and is pretty quickly defeated, but when he earns the Sword of Self-Respect he becomes nearly unstoppable. Along the way, Scott also learns that his goofball friends who pick on him also care a great deal for him, eventually fighting by his side against the Evil Exes. Or, perhaps, once Scott learns self-respect, he also learns to respect the gifts and talents of his amazing friends. Whichever, Scott has a life-changing epiphany, resulting in conversations and actions that are more mature than the rest of the movie.

To be sure, the fight scenes are visually stunning and packed with wit and humor, but the rest of the movie is lovingly and sometimes beautifully crafted. The cast is just stellar, apparently deeply immersed in their roles and having the time of their lives, and the script is the right mix of funny and winsome, even nostalgic for a time in our life where everything was fresh and new and heartbreaks really didn't hurt so much as they would later. A great deal of credit must go to the source graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley which solidly placed this story on the cusp of adulthood. And though some scenes do get a little heavy-handed, overall the ride is a tremendous lot of fun and well worth seeing more than once. It's not likely that Scott Pilgrim vs the World will win any major awards but, like movies such as Ferris Beuller's Day Off, it'll become a touchstone for a generation and a fond memory for anyone who sees it.

(Unfortunately, Mrs. Speculator and I had to see the movie in a non-digital theater—hey, the tickets were free; you take what you can get. I wouldn't recommend seeing it that way; by all means try to go digital.)

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