My friends and I recently were passing around lists of movie-related trivia about ourselves – what are 15 movies that you’ll never forget?, what are 15 movies you haven’t seen yet?, etc. – and one of the lists asked the recipient to name fifteen directors that have significantly affected them. I thought first of directors whose work was particularly unique in some way. Visionary minds like Gaspar Noe and Tarsem Singh sprung immediately to mind. As I began watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I wondered why I hadn’t thought to name Edgar Wright.
I’ve seen Wright’s other two name-making films, both of which have become something of cult classics – Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Both have some pretty remarkable directorial flourishes, and with this latest film Wright manages to maintain those same embellishments (thank you, Thesaurus.com) while taking them in a totally new direction. Where the last two films had awesome, pounding zooms – and I understand how that phrase may make little sense to somebody who has not seen those previous films – this movie makes incredible use of cuts.
The pace is quick. The camera cuts the characters across the room. Scenes are seamlessly spliced together to move from an in-doors location to one outside. It’s all done with almost no effort whatsoever, which allows the hyper-energy of the entire proceeding to spill over from scene to scene, bright colors blending in and moving easily between sets. I didn’t care for the other silly in-your-face stylistic choices, like the idea of showing each character’s name in a black box on-screen with their age and a nickname when they are first introduced. I get that the concept is to make the film feel comic-bookish or video-gamey, but it didn’t work for me. My wife compared it to the over-looked Will Ferrell light comedy Stranger Than Fiction, a pretty accurate comparison. The difference between the two, though, is that Ferrell’s film used these visual asides to aid in building its character’s strange neuroses, whereas Scott Pilgrim just does it to look fancy.
I liked this movie, as I have liked each of Wright’s previous films, but not one of them has left some sort of indelible mark on my psyche. They’re all very good films and they’re all extremely inventive in their presentation, but still feel somewhat slight. It’s clear that I’m not the only one who feels this frustration. Allow me to quote the only critics I ever reference, the A.V. Club, as they ask of Scott Pilgrim: “Why, given its moment-to-moment surplus of visual imagination, does the film feel so hollow and unsatisfying?”
Their answer lies in the plot, which they feel is not driven strongly enough by the central romantic relationship between our titular hero(?) and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend Ramona Flowers, of whom Scott has to battle seven evil exes. I suppose that I can sympathize with that answer to some extent; perhaps that concern could even be extrapolated (thank you, Dictionary.com) to refer to most of the relationships within the film. I could never buy the character of Knives Chau, and most of Scott’s other acquaintances (e.g. his roommate Wallace, his sister Stacey, all of his bandmates) are totally one-note. Har har, a music pun for an indie-ish rock film. That may be the over-riding flaw in this movie, but what then of the previous two films? Neither had as much focus on romantic relationships, and the one central relationship in those was actually done with some measure of sensibility.
Whatever the case, something always feels just a bit off – just a smidgen less than satisfying. I think we’ve put our thumb on the problem for Scott Pilgrim, so let’s leave it at that. Besides, I don’t want to spend too much time harping on the problems when there is a lot to like. In addition to the excellent editing and camera-working, the film is benefited greatly by the awkward humor of lead Michael Cera, who – love him or be very annoyed by him – has made a career out of playing sweet yet twisted characters. That, and the wacky moments played with a straight face, reminding me of a cheerier version of After Hours. Watch two police officers, while leaving the scene of a crime, leap away in slow motion while exchanging high-fives. Nobody bats an eye. Enjoy the way that the battles between Scott and the evil exes are terribly violent, but the characters talk during them as though nothing is going on. Those sorts of weird happenings only make the movie more delightful.
In all, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a hugely enjoyable film. Like all of Wright’s films, though, it’s hard to fall completely in love with it. It’s clever and fun, though, so let’s just try to appreciate that gift for now.