Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim versus the World

I keep hearing how geeks are mainstream now. I don't know how to interpret Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because it's geek and it's mainstream, but it's not mainstream geek. I thought it was downright hilarious. It made Superbad look like Firefly. But the jokes were so heavily entrenched in early 90s geek culture that I don't think it has much cachet outside of that subculture.

Don't get me wrong. It was brilliantly acted, expertly directed and fantastically choreographed. It has all the makings of a cult classic. But it's a video game movie/martial arts farce based on an Indie comic starring that kid from Arrested Development and framed in the context of twenty year old video game console. When you say to me, I say "Can I give you my money now?" When you say it to anyone else, they say "I'm going to see the Expendables."

Either you think that Sex Bob-omb is a hilarious name for a band or you just don't get the reference.

(The third possibility, that you get the reference, but don't find it funny, is just too ridiculous to contemplate.)

Personally, I was in love with this movie from the moment the Nintendo era Universal logo jumped up on the screen followed by the Zelda theme. You will not find a more receptive audience than me. For my fencing final, I choreographed a fight to the Zelda overworld theme. Most people don't have a video game playlist on their mp3 players because they don't have any tracks from video games on their mp3 players. I don't have a video game playlist on my mp3 player because I have too many tracks from video games and such a broad category would be meaningless. I mean you don't want to mix the Dragon Quest Symphonic tracks mixed in with the Lunar Boss theme. (Though it would probably segue nicely into the Actraiser tracks) Also, the Clash At Demonhead! (Yes, I am a geek. Thanks for asking!)

If 1990s Josh and Tim made a movie, it would be this movie. We made a comic series back in the day, Sci-Fi Dragon Ninja Karate Retroculture Sorcery Adventure Quest, or S.F.D.N.K.R.S.A.Q. for short or Sphdunkersack for extra short. It was full of the same self-referential humor and idiotic shout-outs, though more focused on anime than video games (though we did borrow from whatever element of geek culture would get a chuckle, so we were all over the map with our jokes). I was thinking of that when Scott and Knives were playing Ninja, Ninja Revolution. (Like Dance, Dance Revolution, but with Ninja kicks instead of dance moves) Our "Crow with Two Names" comic never got far off the ground, but my conception of the world was a lot like the one in Scott Pilgrim, one much like ours, but with the understanding that super-powered kung fu battles happen to break out from time to time and people just tried not to get too worked up about it.

I enjoyed the level of detail and random nerdery. When Scott was fighting the second evil ex, there were "2's" everywhere, and this theme continued through the movie. "Hey guys, check it out! I learned the bass line from Final Fantasy II!" While walking down the street, the caption read "About to E*X*P*L*O*D*E" for no other reason than random geeks in the audience would be amused by a reference to Akira.

I can't think of a single character I didn't like or a single actor who didn't give an outstanding performance. I like Michael Cera, but he was largely the straight man here. Alison Pill ("Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it." "Yeah...wait, what?") and Kieran Culkin were hilarious with almost everything they did.

I knew Mary Elizabeth Winstead from her role in Sky High. (She was Gwen.) Apparently she was choice for Ramona two years before filming began, because "she has a very sunny disposition as a person, so it was interesting to get her to play a version of herself that was broken inside." She was nicely understated. When casually informing Scott that he has a subspace highway running through his head, she adds, "Oh, I forgot you don't have them in Canada."

I thought all the Evil Exes were pretty great, except for the twins, who were just kind of there.

I loved Satya Bhabha as Michael Patel. I really like the way he says "MIS-TER PIL-GRIMM!" punctuated by the shoulder bobs. Plus, Bollywood dance routines make everything better. As do demon hipster chicks.

Chris Evans is a lot bigger than I remembered him. He really bulked up to play Captain America. Also: (After throwing Scott into a building) "Sup? How's life? He seems nice."

Brandon Routh as Todd encapsulates the movie. Either you can accept that a vegan lifestyle gives you psychic abilities powerful enough to punch the highlights out of a girl's hair or you can't. If you can't, then this is not the movie for you.

I like Mae Whitman. She's the voice of Tinkerbell in Lily's movies, Amber Holt in Parenthood and now she's in Scott Pilgrim as Roxy Richter. She has a refreshingly Rubenesque figure for a young woman in entertainment, but I think the real reason I like her is that Tinkerbell smiles exactly like Mae does. Also, "You punched me in the boob! Prepare to die obviously!" and Ramona to Scott: "I was just a little bi-curious!" Roxy: "I'm just a little bi-furious!"

The writer of the source comic gave a list of ten secrets about each of the characters to their respective actors. I like that. Since I tie everything back to Roger Zelazny sooner or later, it reminded me of something he did, where he would write a short story for characters in his novels, not for publication, but to give himself better understanding of them. I like that there is a larger world inhabited by fictional characters. We only see them for a brief time, but they seem more real if you can believe that they are out there doing something when we're not watching them

Jason Schwartzman as Gideon stood out even among these performers. He's such a talented actor. Looking at his filmography, I'm rather surprised to find that I've only seen two of his appearances. One of the secrets Bryan Lee O'Malley revealed to Schwartzman about the character was that "Gideon is very passive aggressive, and so he’s not overtly evil. He smiles a lot, just kind of “kill ‘em with kindness,” but you can feel that it’s not sincere almost instantly." Schwartzman also stated that he really liked learning about this aspect of the character. He really sold it. Also, "You made me swallow my gum! That's going to be in my digestive tract for seven years!"

.The things that I liked about it is that was that though Scott was a neurotic douchebag, he was still essentially a decent guy. I also like how the movie subverted the traditional Romantic Comedy tropes. I always feel bad for the staid but boring suitor originally engaged to the female lead, but replaced by the free-spirited male lead in the final act. (Often, the original suitor is revealed as a closet jerk to justify this, which drives me crazy!)

A digression. I had a friend whose job had taken him to the other side of the world. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for to cheat on his girlfriend, but he never did, though he did contemplate breaking up with her so he could begin dating. That's where so many Rom Coms get it wrong. If you're dating someone and you're more or less happy, and then one day you find your "soul mate" on the street, most romantic comedies suggest that the right thing to do is to "follow your heart".

To this, I say, "Bullshit." Love the one you're with. Scott is settling for Knives, but he "trades up" to Romona. To his credit and the movie's, he recognizes that he wronged both of them. When Romona asks "You were cheating on me with Knives?" and he says "No, I was cheating on Knives with you," and she asks, "Is there a difference?"

I think that's right. It's a betrayal to both of them. Another friend was seeing a girl for quite a while, but he broke it off, not because he wanted to trade up to somebody better, but because he realized that she wasn't the one, and he loved (and respected, which is an important part of love) her enough to tell her that. It couldn't have been easy, but it was the right thing to do. (And you know, for as much a socially-retarded narcissistic jerk as I am, I do have a fair number of really stand-up guys as friends.)

I loved the movie. I think it's the best geeky metaphor for growing up since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's surprisingly poignant in parts. It never felt like an adaptation. (I did enjoy the hipster in the movie who was saying "The comic book was better than the movie.") I'm not familiar with the source material, but from what I read, I thought Wright and O'Malley did a brilliant job of creating Scott Pilgrim movie. There was exactly one scene (where Scott picks up a cymbal) that looked like it came out of a comic book, but nothing else. Kevin Smith said " I would be hard pressed to say, 'he's bringing a comic book to life!' but he is bringing a comic book to life", but to me it felt more like he was bringing a video game to life, and it was only incidental that the story had begun life as a comic book.

I think it's great. It's certainly not a movie for everyone, or even for most geeks. To return to the topic at the beginning of the review, I think the best evidence of a geek Renaissance is that such a thoroughly unapologetic paean to geekery got such a wide release.

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