The “Scott Pilgrim” Movie Is Awesome: A Roundtable

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With the release of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” imminent (it’s tomorrow!), Techland’s staff has been chatting pretty much constantly about how totally into it we are. Here’s what Steve Snyder, Lev Grossman, Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan and Evan Narcisse have to say about it.

STEVE: Am I the only one taken aback by the critical debate that’s been swirling around Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World? Almost all of us saw this back at Comic-Con, and we walked away raving. And then the snipes started, one reviewer saying that the whole thing played indulgent and juvenile. I remember reading the magazine, nodding my head right along with everything that critic was saying, wondering how this was possibly a bad thing.

So I need your assistance here, chaps – can someone help me make heads or tails out of what’s going on with this film in critical circles? I remember Lev tweeting about how much he loved living in the Scott Pilgrim universe, and that’s the same thing that struck me. This film veers so wildly between pathetic Scott and heroic Scott, between lust and loss and longing, that what I connected with was its utter, glorious dysfunction. It reminded me of what it’s like to be a teenager, grappling with all these emotions, starring as the hero of your own little home movie. Each breakup a tragedy, each new love interest a sweeping Shakespearean romance.

(More on Techland: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Book Club: Volume 6)

I’ve read a couple reviews that said these stylized segues were a large part of the film’s failing, that in being so jumpy and jittery and ADD, the movie is actually rendered inconsequential. Well, I’ve always been someone – with movies like 2001, The Fountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception – who has savored stylistic devices that take us someplace new and novel. And what I loved about this movie is that you can jump almost immediately from a mopey, sighing Michael Cera to a high-flying duel with a vegan ex-boyfriend. The camera can suddenly switch from a passive observer to a whip cracking, high-flying player in the action, every jump cut or zoom accented by director Edgar Wright’s on-screen text.

It’s completely insane, and in such a wonderful way. Almost as if we are seeing this action through Scott’s eyes, that this entire movie has been cribbed from his daydreams. It felt very visual to me, very inventive, very immersive. And it reminded me of all the euphoria, agony, angst, apprehension, heartache, triumph and confusion that reigns supreme when you’re a young person trying to figure out this chaotic jigsaw puzzle called life.

Um, yeah, so I’m a big advocate for this movie. Even a little pretentious about my love. But I’m so sick of critics complaining about predictable plots and then not basking in the inventiveness of something like Scott Pilgrim. I’ve never seen a movie quite like this, which puts us in the front seat of the emotional roller coaster video game…

LEV: I read Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review today.

I like Lane, and I was all stoked to see the first mainstream rave of Scott Pilgrim unleashed upon the world. Instead, he dismissed the movie with the back of his hand.

Look, I see the weaknesses of the story. They were there in the comic too. Scott can be an insipid little twat, and Ramona isn’t, you know, Jane Eyre or anything, characterization-wise, and the main narrative conceit — the ex-boyfriends — is pretty slight.

But the richness — tenderness even — of the world-building, and the sheer storytelling energy, I’m really surprised anybody can resist that.

(More on Techland: Techland Reviews Scott Pilgrim)

Look: The very first time that Sex Bob-omb starts rocking out.  Wright (the director) starts drawing in the lightning-bolts, and the camera backs away so that their shabby little rehearsal room becomes an infinite corridor (I thought of “it’s never done that before!” from Time Bandits!), and Cera starts doing his weird floppy Pilgrim-dance, and the air itself goes all heat-shimmery from the sheer sonic awesomeness of it all … THAT is a little filmic universe I want to hang out in.

During the first boyfriend fight, when Matthew Patel materializes those spectral Bollywood dancers with the fighting-fish teeth, I turned to Peter and said, all Knives-Chau-style, “Oh my god, this is the greatest movie ever made!” I was kidding, but only sort of.

STEVE: And I can’t stress this enough: Scott is not presented in this movie as an infallible conquering hero. Many reviews I have read have zeroed in on the movie’s one-note structure. But I don’t see merely one note. In fact, I hear a lot of different, jumbled, contradictory notes in search of a symphony.

I interviewed Wright last week and he said much the same thing. He said that there are two camps of Pilgrim fans: those who think he’s a rock solid hero and those who think he’s somewhat delusional and profoundly flawed.

He says that he buys into the latter line of thought, and that would be seen in the movie through Scott’s ex-girlfriend Kim, a constant reminder of the pain HE has wrought. After all, he’s an evil ex too.

So here’s the thing: the movie is not one-dimensional, and all these critics are willfully misreading the story. But what disturbs me even more: what if this movie was indeed about one egomaniacal and arrogant young man? What’s so wrong with a movie about that? Have we decided such a main character is off limits?

The movie is not a singular tribute to epicness; it’s a dizzying character study that invites scrutiny, consideration and even criticism. Scott’s a living, breathing, flawed creation; that’s what makes him, and his movie, so engaging.

DOUGLAS: I just saw the movie for the first time, and I loved it. What surprised me is that the things about it I loved most don’t have a lot to do with the books. There’s a gigantic body of symbolic visual storytelling techniques that comics and video games use without thinking twice, and that music videos have gradually been picking up on; live-action movies, though, have mostly been really cautious about doing anything that doesn’t at least imply that it’s what their viewers would have seen if they’d been where the camera is. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is anything but cautious. Wright doesn’t care at all about verisimilitude here; he cares about being entertaining. And so that’s what this movie is: incredibly entertaining, straight through, moving from one scene to the next without even really suggesting a curtain-fall or a cut. It trusts us to not take it literally, to understand that everything we see is a funny and vivid way of explaining the characters’ emotional states.

(I’m not saying that this is the first movie that’s ever done this, but really, the movie that this reminded me of more than any other was Run Lola Run, and that was 1998, and it was a lot more formally cautious than this. But I also haven’t seen Speed Racer yet. I know I know.)

Any depth of character we get is basically a bonus in a movie like this (sweet! coins!). That said: it’s amazing how well a lot of O’Malley’s characters, and yeah, their depth, transfer to the screen. Wallace Wells, most obviously, and Ramona for the most part, but Aubrey Plaza steals every scene she’s in as Julie Powers. (Some of O’Malley’s set-pieces translate incredibly well, too–the hilariously miserable, fraught backstage scene after the Clash at Demonhead’s show is pretty much verbatim from the book.) And of course Scott is immature and self-aggrandizing; this is a story about how he mans up some. But it’s also a movie that’s making an aesthetic argument about what movies–even romantic comedies–can do if they let go of the conventions of “realism” and representation that they’ve mostly clung to for a century. If it goes too far with that, I don’t think that’s really a problem.

(More on Techland: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Fashion Tips)

GRAEME: Getting in late on this, but now that I’ve seen the movie twice, I’m prepared to talk tough and threaten people who dislike it with a fight, only to wuss out if they actually agree. But I loved the movie a second time as much as I did the first, and feel even more strongly that those who feel as if it paints Scott as an infallible hero are simply not paying attention; not only is he quite clearly an insensitive jerk for at least half the movie – something that’s completely made obvious in the scene before he fights Roxy, when he tells Ramona that Kim and Knives are both okay with his dumping them and it’s very very clear that they’re not, but should also be pretty apparent from the cavalier way he treats his friends throughout the entire movie, and especially his conversations with Knives – but the final battle(s) hinge on him “earning” the powers of love and understanding, for the love of God. How can you miss that?

I’m also stunned that people think that the way the movie plays with time and jumps from scene to scene is a bad thing; it’s one of the things I loved most about the movie, the way it plays with narrative and timelines. How long are Scott and Ramona actually together, in the movie? The books play with this a little in the final book, as well, but the movie does it so much more clearly, the way that time seems elastic and meaningless, and things keep happening, as Bryan Lee O’Malley wrote at one point. It feels cinematic in a way that the books, at their best, felt like a celebration of comics. I can’t believe that people don’t like it.

(More on Techland: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: The Game Review)

LEV: This is one of the few nerdy entertainments that I feel confident enough about that I’m going to force my (nerdy, but not hardcore) wife to see it. Venture Brothers was another. It has THAT MUCH integrity.

EVAN: Like Steve says, Cera isn’t playing his usual beta-male sad sack here. Scott Pilgrim’s a bit of a jerk, slightly needy and oblivious to consequences of his own obliviousness.

But Wright’s not oblivious. In Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics, the logic of video games becomes magical realism. Edgar Wright knows the comics’ fans–and his already established audience–gobbles up memes by the gallon and homes in the shift of perception created by so much media saturation. Yet he locates some heart in all that confusion, too. Scott’s a protagonist who knows how to fight better than he knows what he’s fighting for, which mirrors the anxious energy of those late teen and early twenty-something years. It’s not ADD film directing; it’s recognizing that your audience can hold multiple ideas in their head at once.

And, honestly, it’s a huge accomplishment that Wright’s able to replicate the energy of comics and video games, two media that have been notoriously difficult to translate to film. He does so many little things to duplicate the panel transitions of comics, the button-mashing of martial arts fighting games. There’s buzzing liveliness and lightning-quick gags in every frame, calling back from everything to Street Fighter to the Adam West Batman TV show. It’s a movie that’s happy to be alive.

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