Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010) -- B+

Pop culture savvy now rules modern pop culture. Almost too deep into post-modernism for an about face, it becomes increasingly necessary to weed out those rancid, falsely convincing hack jobs (Zombieland, Pineapple Express, Funny People) from the truly audacious (the names Nevaldine/Taylor and Edgar Wright are the only qualifiers). Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might be Wright's most emphatically stylistic incarnation to date, faltering only in its inability to transport visual irreverence to the social realm. No worries, though; Wright's constant formal play and seemingly disjointed visual style remains amazingly streamlined and on task, compensating for a few gaffs in characterization.

The film, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, defies generic categorization through its fantastical presentation, taking place in some semblance of a real world, but populated by lapses in filmic logic, seamlessly fusing comic book isolation (its cartoonish, literary aspects) with youthful angst, rectifying the smarmy narcissism of Zach Braff's Garden State with succinct, if slightly reductive explications of various types, attitudes and youthful cynicisms. Most importantly, Wright's satirizing of youth culture takes itself just seriously enough, never playing down to an audience, but never elevating itself above them. Wright hones contemporary youth's aesthetic predilections, from video games, sitcoms, comic books, music videos, advertising - but produces a pastiche to transcend those labels because of his refusal to let the medium confine him. It's dream logic is more impressive than Inception, its ellipsis's more refined (even if it never becomes quite as viscerally unified). Finally, in a summer of dead dreck (or depressing rehashes), here's a film that truly feels alive and happy to be so, hardly letting a frame pass without electrifying cinematic sensibilities.

While Wright gets the cultural connection visually, he falters only in allowing Scott Pilgrim to often adopt the same knowledge of life (and girls) as his titular character; that is, Scott (Michael Cera) feels crushed over the loss of ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson), so he starts dating the cutely named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), only to realize his dream woman (literally, he first sees her in a dream) is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She's so spontaneous, she changes her hair color every week and a half (a clear allusion to Kate Winslet's blue-haired Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another film to which Wright owes a debt, or is at least paying homage). Problem is, when Ramona's seven evil ex's show up, he must use his manboy machismo (and often wit) to defeat them in a Street Fighter-like match-up. All of the fight sequences are handled with candy-colored jubilation and largely successful. However, Wright's curious handling of Scott's treatment towards gf's (and Scott's own narcissism) don't play out with the expected irreverence. When Knives tells Scott she wants him to meet her parents, he responds: "Are you even allowed to date outside of your own race?" The line's meant to signify Scott's growing anxiety that he will have to break Knives's heart right to her face, but is played rather straight, intimating Scott's own assumptions of racial and moral superiority. Likewise, the film makes a running joke of Scott's gay, sex-crazed roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who hits on/seems to fuck every guy he latches onto. A stereotype for sure, but surprisingly the film leaves it at that, allowing Wallace to pop in only for a punchline or a one-liner (though all of this is admittedly funny and comedically adept). Moreover, Knives's discovery of Scott's treachery is met with shrieking, psychotic horror (you can almost sense the image of Eihi Shiina from Takashi Miike's Audition floating around in Wright's subconscious) as her presence at one point sends Scott hurling through a plate glass window (and only popping back in briefly to retrieve his jacket).

From the film, it becomes necessary to be clear: Wright depicts GEEKY WHITE BOY culture (there's nary a black person to be found), and to say the film's sexual and racial politics are a bit sketchy and glossed over wouldn't be unfair. Almost out of seeming necessity, it's revealed that one of Ramona's evil ex's is Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), and she explains it through the parlance of our times, labeling herself as "bi-curious." Roxy responds, "well, I'm a little bi-furious!" The inclusion feels disingenuous and obligatory, reducing Roxy to a mouthy, out-spoken biatch, almost the equivalent of its gay male riff. These aren't necessarily criticisms against the film, but Wright inserts enough of them (reductive caricatures, that is) that either he's attempting some sort of satirical short-hand or he's oblivious to their shortcomings. I tend to lead towards the former, but it remains unclear exactly what the satire says, or is saying.

Nevertheless, Scott Pilgrim vs The World has a way with language too, often appropriating slang or short-term to stake out its cultural territory (Chris Evans, as Ramona's now famous evil ex, says about his stunt double at one point: "He's good right? Sometimes I let him do the wide shots. When I feel like getting blazed back in my Winne"). Or that Roxy eventually labels Ramona a "hasbien." Or any of the other three or four dozen potential examples of vernacular play. Basically, if one doesn't get hung up on its social shortcomings, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has exuberance to spare through its sugary, cotton-candy coated, junk-food-working-as-kinetic-high-pop-art madness.

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