Like: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

August 14, 2010

For those of you who have not read the Scott Pilgrim books by Bryan Lee O’Malley, do yourself a favor and run (don’t walk) to your nearest store to purchase them. All read up? Okay good.

What you may have noticed in reading is that the books are surprisingly good. Not just fun, or funny, or inventive, but outright good. They’re about maturity in a decidedly immature zeitgeist; one largely dependent on style, imagery, and desperate attempts to stay young and (ir)relevant. It’s about our fleeting fascination with posture and accepting the kinds of difficult gray areas below the surface. Stuff like  personal, financial, and emotional responsibilities. In other words, heavy stuff but in a perfectly digestible context. In that regard, I think the books are transcendent.

What’s hilarious about that proclamation is that the Scott Pilgrim property gets a ton of crap from people who think it’s nothing but crappy “hipster stuff.” The irony of that is that Scott Pilgrim is essentially a careful annihilation of hipsterism.  Scott Pilgrim is not a hipster, honestly he lacks the kind of self-awareness needed to pull that off. Scott Pilgrim’s issues are deeply basic: love, insecurity, money, responsibility. He’s way more Homer Simpson than someone who’s too cool for school. Even more revealing is that the most obvious hipsters in the books are actually the bad guys. The evil ex boyfriends run the gamut of fame obsessed narcissism, pretentious dietary snobbery, militant life choices, and most of all, simply “looking cool.”  Even one of the bad guys has a horde of “evil hipster chicks.” It’s actually kind of obvious what O’Malley is going for here.

It’s not just about the outright rejection either. One of the reasons Scott Pilgrim is mistaken for being nothing more than hipster stuff is that the main characters largely wrestle with their own desires to be cool (and regardless of form, jock, rock star, hipster, etc. being cool is one of the universal goals of the immature). “Do we rock or do we suck?” is a question repeated through the series. And naturally the answered learned is that it doesn’t matter. Life amounts to everything below the surface. Besides, to lambaste hipsterism you need to outright engage it. Sure, people can toss their snarky hand grenades from afar, but they’re doing so simply as a reaction to the surface details… and thus they are essentially engaging in the same kind of surface evaluation that they decry hipsters for doing in the first place. How’s that for irony?

Okay, enough semantics. Now let’s talk about the movie.

Edgar Wright was the perfect person to handle the film. SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ are both modern classics. He’s so adept at propulsive filmmaking and genre bending. SCOTT PILGRIM continues to the trend and even manages to push the envelope in terms of story construction. Inventive transitions abound and not in a distracting way, but designed for story telling and establishing tone. The action is surprisingly well articulated. Each fight feels unique. The references (save for one or two) are not distracting in any sense whatsoever. He’s created a wholly valid world here. But what makes Edgar Wright actually good is not just the quality of work and references (something that sets him apart from contemporary filmmakers like, I dunno, McG? or something?) but how he balances them with a nicely observed emotional moments and arcs. It’s top-flight filmmaking, genre-intensive or not.

Part of Wright’s ability to weave resonance into a stylistic narrative is his seemingly innate ability to extract perfectly observed performances from all parties involved. This is an ensemble cast in the truest sense. We have our two leads of course, but the supporting figures are so richly weaved into tapestry and plot of the film that it simply would not work if anyone did not carry their respective scenes. This is largely because Wright slightly skews the of tone the books in favor of making the supporting cast be the driving force of the narrative. Seriously they are all fantastic. In order of my favorites:

Wallace Wells – Keiran Culkin balances the art of caring and supporting a friend and giving them a right proper kick in the ass (and often doing both at the same time). His deadpan lines just slay.

T0dd – Brandon Routh rocks the self entitled asshole rockstar and holier than thou lifestyle with such a nice sense of focus: meaning he goes broad, but it doesn’t feel broad. His bravado has a casualness. Tricky stuff. I loved it.

Stephen Stills – Stills always felt a little flat in the comic (or at least I wasn’t sure how to read him) and Mark Webber really makes him shine in the movie.

Knives Chau – Her story was really focused on in the movie (well, that makes more sense given the original ending) but I was originally worried that she would come off as pure slapstick (like she does in the trailers) but nope, Ellen Wong perfectly captures the shyness and soft-spoken 17  year insecurities beautifully.

Kim Pine – Alison Pill’s a force of sarcastic nature.

Lucas Lee – Chris Evans does go cartoonishly broad and STILL slays.

Stacy Pilgrim – Anna Kendrick nails a role I essentially forgot about. Her comic timing is just effortless isn’t it?

Comeau- The guy who plays the guy who knows everyone and he has to convey his character entirely in, like, three well-delivered lines. He nails it and propels even one of the better meta jokes in the movie.

And then there’s the leads. As Ramona Flowers Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets the opportunity to play something other than “pretty girl.” (Seriously, in Death Proof she is just objectification objectified… which was on purpose and all but you don’t get to show range). And she’s acquits herself admirably. It’s alluring without trying to be. Sarcastic without being cold. Distancing while not shutting off. Bitchiness without being a Bitch. Like I said, most of these performances are about balancing the way we we act in real life with the raging obtuse qualities of the characters and narrative. And Winstead knows who Ramona is and how to convey her. Bravo.

And lastly there’s Michael Cera himself. He was my biggest worry going in. Not because I don’t love Cera (I do) but because I wasn’t sure what he could do with the Scott Pilgrim character. Scott is unlike most of Cera’s other characters. He wears his heart on his sleeve, talks before he thinks, voices all insecurities aloud, and is constantly unaware of his situation (instead of being painfully aware).  I’ve always wanted to see Cera show his range and hoped nothing but the best for him… but this was beloved Scott Pilgrim. People just freaking love this character (as they should, he’s sort of like a young Homer Simpson)… The stakes just seemed too high… But Cera freaking did it. He’s really does figure a way to make Scott Pilgrim work with his style and timing. He’s hilarious. Sometimes he goes subdued, sometimes he goes exasperated, but it’s always measured  while still being organic.

I obviously really like this movie.

Which is funny because walking out of it I wasn’t as enthused. I thought about how if I had my druthers I would want a lot more of the “down time” parts of the books. I wished there were some more details of how Scott was poor and siphoned off others and always needed money. I would want to see him learning about getting jobs (“It’s like a job system?) but I recognize the inherent problems of their inclusion. There is a narrative to uphold here and I was amazed how coherent it all felt. It’s part of the propulsion and maybe Scott getting a job is fittingly on the cutting room.

The more and more I thought about it the more I realized that I really loved it.

Edgar Wright.

One of the best filmmakers around.

Bryan Lee O’Malley.

One of the best comic book writers around.

Here’s to a rousing success. They’ve made something really progressive.

And to think I was once worried.


Don’t Like (Comparitively): Up In The Air

January 11, 2010

UP IN THE AIR is fairly pleasant and technically well-made. The stars and interactions are amiable. I liked what it was trying to do and what it was trying to say. It is even timely in a tad on the nose, but still completely respectable way. I fully recognize that it has some worth in the landscape of poopy movies out there. So why don’t I like the movie? The problem is that central conceit of UP IN THE AIR doesn’t really make sense whatsover, which means the entire movie is basically an irreconcilable trick.

There is one central question which highlights this problem: why does George Clooney like isolating himself from people and spending most of his time on an airplane? Seriously, why? The only substantial answer the film seems to give is because he does, that’s why! By all accounts the character is amiable, genuine, and well-intentioned. He likes to get away from his family, but in all scenes with them he is warm, kind, and means well. He can’t help falling into perfect comfort and ease with his female counterpart. Within a day they act like they’re in a full blown relationship despite the fact that they’re both no. So when he gives his speeches about wanting to accumulate 10 million miles, burning your backpack of a life, and how comforting the lonesome travel routine is to him… well… it seems completely out of left field for his likable personality type. That person is not like that. That person is even real. Hell, I know that person. That person is slightly Aspergian. That person is unadjusted. That person doesn’t get why their job is evil, or why it’s actually so important that actually connect with other human beings. And as such that person does not behave like George Clooney. Conversely George Clooney is one of the only people who can make that character likable and thus enjoyable for the audience to watch, but does not doing that completely undermine the entire conceit of the movie? His character is really doing nothing but going through the motions of dissasoiation. No matter how hard he tries to sell it, we never buy it for a second. Not from George Clooney. UP IN THE AIR is really nothing more than an irreconciable premise, well executed.

So it comes down to a question of logic, and if you engage that question, the movie can’t help but fail. (Note: this isn’t a plot hole kind of thing. Plot holes you can ignore much, much easier to forgive than a hole in character. Then again some people don’t agree with that, but I really believe we will follow and forgive a character for doing anything plot-wise if they are true to “themselves.” If a character bends their will merely for the sake of plotting, or another character’s development and not their own individual reveal, it just never truly works.)

Similarly there is a development in the film that highlights this exact same failure in logic, and this is a MEGA SPOILER so be wary… okay here’s the spoilier… When Vera Farmiga’s character is revealed to be married it is both the most obvious thing (because they way they shoot the build up to the scene) and similarly the most left-field nonsensical thing for her character. Aside from one singular part of the film, she never for a second behaves as if she’s married. Or someone who is the married type. Why would she behave in such “relationship-y” way with George Clooney’s character? Despite a few in-your-face lines, it is obviously not just a sexual fling for her. Why would she go to his wedding, and to his high school, and go down all those roads if he’s just her “escape” from her marriage? Why would she be so helplessly at ease with him when he’s getting wisty with and attached to her? It makes absolutely no fucking sense. It’s merely a story telling trick to set you up for her eventual reveal (ie “betrayal”). And if that’s part of her game or modus operandi than she is simply an evil, callous, and use-a-term-again Aspergian human being… which the film does not seem to be indicating whatsoever. So there.

The end result is this: UP IN THE AIR is a slick, detached hollywood production that is trying to say something worthwhile and timely about wounded and detached human beings, but can only do so by hoodwinking you with dishonest charm.*

* it should be noted Anna Kendrick’s character, despite being the most cartoony of the bunch, actually made sense and was therefore the best part about the movie. Like I said, I will forgive anything if the charcter’s actions and behaviors are emotionally valid for the character.