Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Gets old fast
Edgar Wright
Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick
The Setup: 
Guy must defeat his girlfriend's seven evil exes in video game style contests.

This never looked that interesting to me, and it looked like its gimmick—video-game and comic book graphics going on all over the screen—looked like it would get tired quickly. The only thing that gave me hope was that it is directed by Edgar Wright, who made the brilliant Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, and has demonstrated ability to make films that are both of a genre and parodying that genre at the same time, so I thought he might be able to make something interesting of this. I didn’t like it, but then again, I’m 42, and I have an attention span. I look on the IMDb and see that some in its core audience [14-24-year-olds] consider it to be “an incomparable masterpiece,” so you’ll have to take what I say as coming from someone of my perspective.

So Scott Pilgrim is this 22yo who lives in Toronto with his gay roommate, Wallace. They are so poor that they both sleep in the same bed, sometimes with Wallace’s boyfriend du moment. Scott is in a band called Sex Bob-omb who are gearing up for this big battle of the bands in order to get a record contract. Scott is going out with a 17-year-old, Knives Chau, who worships him. The film makes quite clear that they have not had sex. Then Scott sees Ramona Flowers, the type of unemotional cool indie girl who drives certain guys crazy. She has just moved to Toronto from New York, where her personal situation got too intense. She and Scott start dating, whereupon he soon learns that in order to be with her, he will first have to defeat her seven evil exes.

The movie has a meandering rhythm and not much of a real plot, which is both good and bad. It just wanders here, considers this for a while, then that, then moves on, much like the lackadaisical quality of the characters themselves, who vacillate between wildly overenthused and completely affectless, most of their sentences appended by “…or whatever” or “…and stuff.” The main action of the movie is made up of the appearance of Ramona’s seven exes, and their battles with Scott. At these times the movie suddenly becomes a little martial arts film, and punches and moves are punctuated with on-screen video-game style graphics that saw “POWWWWW” or show motion blurs or video game graphics like extra lives and whatnot. I was pleased to see that they consciously tried to vary the battles, so that some exes are not defeated through the typical fight, but some by skateboard or, in one battle, a dairy product.

The movie gets a lot of stuff exactly right. The characters all seem very true to life, including Scott, the skinny, inarticulate nerd who nevertheless has a series of women all smitten over him, and his female counterpart, Ramona, who attracts boyfriends like flies and remains all but indifferent to each of them. The movie also gets right their meandering lives, manner of speaking, mini-crises and triumphs, etc. It also takes a slight comedic distance on their way of being, so that it both presents these characters’ modes of presentation and way of speaking, while at the same time acknowledging that it is funny and gently mocking it. Some of the jokes are genuinely funny and clever, and so many bits go by so fast—at one point we have a sudden, inexplicable Seinfeld-type laugh-track that is abruptly cut off mid-scene—you barely have time to register one before another begins. So the best thing about this movie is the way it really seems to capture these quite recognizable characters just right.

So it’s very cute and clever and funny. The problem is, it just starts, and continues, then ends, with barely any variation, rising or falling action, structure, rhythm, momentum, or anything. It’s flat. Though they try hard to vary the fights, one still comes away with the feeling that the fights are all exactly the same. They’re also so hyper-stylized and ironic that it’s impossible to actually get involved, so you just sit and watch them unfold and wait for it to be over. I think the thing that sums up the static action of the movie best is that, during the huge battle at the climax of the film, I looked over and my friend was falling asleep.

Afterward, as you look back, some other problems assert themselves. The most major is that characters who are ironic, distant and non-involved just don’t make very interesting movie characters. Because of this, we never sense any basis for Scott and Ramona’s relationship—except he thinks she’s pretty—and thus there are few stakes and nothing we feel they have that is worth fighting for. The film is loaded with special effects—as many or more than the average Harry Potter film—and after a while you begin to wish it could just settle down and give it a rest for a second. And the flat, perpetually-forward movement of video games isn’t particularly suited for movies, which work best with rising and falling action and momentum toward a big climax. The overall film here has no rhythm or shape… the final villain seems only slightly more powerful than any of the other villains, and by then we’ve all seen the same fight [what seems like] a thousand times. I told my friend I saw it and she replies “I heard it gets old fast,” and that is the best three-word summary there is.

Now, the matter of Wallace, the gay roommate. On the one hand, I suppose it’s good that he is here without comment, he is the main character’s roommate and even shares a bed with him… so there is, nicely, none of the physical distance even the most accepting portrayals of gay-straight friendship usually have, as in the “Don’t touch me, man” kind of stuff. And this all passes without comment. And it also passes without comment that one of Ramona’s evil exes is a woman. But back to Wallace. What I could live without is who Wallace is as a PERSON, a man-obsessed, sex-obsessed officious little prick. He almost always has at least one—sometimes two—boyfriends in his bed, and goes through at least four boyfriends during the course of the film. He is presented as someone who spreads gossip relentlessly, especially after Scott has specifically asked him not to. He always takes an exasperated, man-of-the-world tone talking down to Scott, and ultimately kicks Scott out of the apartment, though I don’t think we ever established that it is in his name and Scott is just staying there. It’s not that I don’t know people like this—believe me, I do—it’s just that… one senses the movie is going out of its way to have a positive gay portrayal, thanks guys, but I just felt like Wallace himself was a little unpleasant. For one specific, I suggest that Wallace’s sleeping with so many guys is supposed to come off as gay-positive, the way sometimes straights are heard to say that their gay friend gets so much more tail than they do, or they would get laid so much if they were gay, but do we need another portrayal of gays as promiscuous and sex-obsessed and bitchy and unreliable? I personally don’t, although I appreciate the effort. I guess. Thanks... and stuff.

Ultimately the fact that certain younger people find this movie enthralling—to be as tactful as I can about it—is consistent with my impressions of the critical abilities of younger people. If you have a limited attention span, you won’t notice that the flashing things on the screen are the same flashing things that flashed a few minutes ago, and a bit before that. If you rarely get emotionally involved in anything, you won’t notice that there isn’t anything to get emotionally involved with here. If your attention is just in the moment, you won’t notice that the climax here isn’t much different from any other moment of the movie. Ultimately this turned out to be exactly what I expected, although I had come to hope that I would be wrong and it would be a little better than it looked. I know this movie didn’t do that well at the box office… I’ll be very interested to see how it holds up, if it starts to attain cult status, or just gradually fades away. Or whatever.

Should you watch it: 

I don’t think anyone really needs to.