Saturday, August 21, 2010

Review - Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

It's very easy to be dazzled by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but alas, the effect is fleeting. Edgar Wright's film is a visual onslaught, with almost every scene being embellished in some way by a caption, gag or special effect. When a phone rings, we see R-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-NG blare across the screen; when one character declares her love for another, the word "love" emerges from her mouth as a puff of pink smoke that her would-be partner wafts away; when Scott (Michael Cera) kisses Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), tiny pink hearts fly out from their locked lips. Edgar Wright developed his high-impact, heavily referential directorial style on the TV series Spaced and his two features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and he has raised his game here, making every camera move, sound effect and piece of trickery count. Unfortunately, a little of this goes a very long way, and in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, there's a lot of it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is Wright's adaptation of a series of Toronto-based comic books by Bryan Lee O'Malley. The film is a love story, of sorts, but its title character is a tough figure to get behind as a romantic lead. Scott is a 22 year-old slacker who plays bass in a mediocre band called Sex Bob-omb and he's currently dating a rather sweet 17 year-old high school student called, for some reason, Knives (Ellen Wong). As played by Cera, Scott is whiney, indecisive and selfish, and he's ready to drop Knives like a hot potato the moment he lays eye on Ramona, the enigmatic and beautiful character who is (literally) the girl of his dreams. If he wants to win Ramona's heart, however, he'll have to fight for her, as her Seven Evil Exes suddenly start turning up to challenge Scott to a series of duels.

So there's your narrative; a series of fights between a super-powered Scott and his colourful array of assailants
Seven of them, for God's sake. Actually, mercifully, there are only six bouts to sit through, as two of Ramona's exes are twins whom Scott needs to tackle at the same time. Your mileage may vary, but after a couple of these encounters, I'd already seen enough. The fights in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are modelled on videogames, with the characters flying through the air at each other, smashing through walls and finally, when one has been vanquished, exploding into coins. This sudden change of pace and the imbuing of Scott with unimaginable fighting abilities are never explained, and these sequences simply explode out of the movie in same manner and song-and-dance numbers would in a musical, but how seriously are we meant to take them? At the end of every bout, Scott kills one of Ramona's exes (well, he turns them into coins), but there is no sense of life and death at play here. The battles feel weirdly inconsequential and, as inventively as they have been made, they ultimately feel rather dull.

Which begs the question: if we don't care about these battles, then why should we care about the love that Scott is fighting so valiantly for? As a romance, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is damp squib. Michael Cera's ineffectual performance is not strong enough to hold the centre of the film, and as Ramona, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is never allowed to be anything more than a pair of pretty eyes underneath a colourful wig. In fact, nobody in the large and talented cast is allowed to play anything other than a single note repeatedly. Some of them do a lot with the little they've been given – Chris Evans and Brandon Routh are probably the funniest of the Exes, while Kieran Culkin's deadpan comic timing is one of the movie's unqualified highlights – but they aren't really characters, they're just individuals with a single trait to offer.

So, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is all style, and the style is often thrilling to watch. Edgar Wright is a hugely talented filmmaker with a keen eye for sight gags and real sense of confidence in his ability to wield a camera. The film is very, very funny in places, and some of its imaginative touches are delightful, but there's also something unappealingly self-conscious about the manner in which the film cloaks itself in pop-culture references while never connecting with anything below the surface. Ramona's habit of changing her hair colour on a weekly basis reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the comparison didn't help Scott Pilgrim's cause. That picture complemented its wild and imaginative flights of fancy with a story grounded by real emotions, whereas I didn't for one moment feel anything as I watched Scott's pursuit of Ramona. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has so much technical wizardry at its disposal, it has a hugely talented cast and crew on board, it has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies, music, computer games and comics – the one thing it's lacking, sadly, is a heart.