Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a financial flop so far, I don’t know why exactly. It’s aimed directly at the prized demographic of Young People Who Still Go to Theaters to See Movies If Anyone Does, In Order to Get Out of the House. But maybe it really only appeals to a smaller niche group, Young Geeks Who Watch Movies on Their Computers, Alone?
Meanwhile, the general public turned out to see The Expendables, which is no doubt rotten, but who cares? I almost saw that instead, myself. It features about fifteen action stars plus Mickey Rourke, and it’s called The Expendables. Enough said.
And the usual horde of dupes went to see that cheesy food/spirituality/sex-tourism movie, Eat Pray Love, proving once again that old Abe Lincoln was right: you can fool some of the people all of the time.
But back to Scott Pilgrim. In wondering about the movie’s relative unpopularity, there’s also the director to consider, Edgar Wright. His other movies so far are pretty niche-y as well, genre parodies that are so fond and fixated on genre particulars they don’t get the big box-office play they deserve, though they become beloved on DVD: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Hot Fuzz is an interesting case. It starts off spoofing big, absurdly violent American action films, which everybody understands. But then it folds in a general parody of all literary/filmic works about quaint English rural community life and how unexpectedly sinister it really is—The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Wickerman, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, that kind of thing. Who likes both of those things enough to see them mashed together in one movie?
Well, I was there opening day, saying, “For ME? Aw, shucks, you shouldn’t have!” Nice empty theater, plenty of seats to put my coat on, though I guess it did fine in the long run.
That’s why I went to see Scott Pilgrim, because of my affection for the works of Edgar Wright (and his usual partner in parody, Simon Pegg). I didn’t know anything about the graphic novels it’s based on, by some guy named Bryan Lee O’Malley, and I hated the few images I’ve seen from it since. Ghastly cute-looking crap!
And cuteness is indeed a problem with this film. In it, young people are as sweet and harmless as baby ducks, which, as we know, is generally not the case in real life. Before they grow that empathy lobe in their brains that will be yet another factor in making their middle-aged years poignantly miserable, most young people are cold, narcissistic, and ruthless without even knowing that they are, because they also cry easily.
And ironically, that’s the subject matter of Scott Pilgrim: the damage young people do to each other in their romantic entanglements. Our calf-like hero (played by Michael Cera, of course), is technically a post-adolescent, between jobs, but benefiting from the cultural cachet of playing bass in a band. He starts to develop painful empathy-buds due to the sudden blowback from all his past meanness and betrayals while chasing a new girl, the worldly Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His apparently hopeless struggle to defeat her “seven evil exes” in mortal combat is all part of the agony of personal growth. “I think I just learned something,” he laments after a harsh defeat, sitting alone in an afterlife desert purgatory. “But unfortunately now I’m dead.”
It’s all made adorable and harmless, in other words. He isn’t really dead. Everything can be fixed and forgiven. The battles against the evil exes are fantasy emotional battles with the number of direct-hit points adding up video-game style and campy “POW!” impact sounds spelled out over the superhero punches. You can see what the filmmakers are going for: young lives feel epic when you’re living them, and the movie’s aesthetic is Comical Teen Expressionism, with Scott’s inner life organizing the entire visual and aural world. So the camera’s hopping and skipping and sliding all over the place in Scott’s various levels of reality, from his superhuman fights against evil exes to roommate problems in his drab apartment, from his bickering band practice sessions to fantasy-success scenes playing huge gigs in packed nightclubs, from his dreams of the perfect girl to trudging through the numbing cold of his snowbound Toronto neighborhood with her on a bad first date, etc.
Layered over all of this is post-production computer-age noodling: cute pop-up icons, details in filmed scenes circled in white, with little arrows pointing at them and identifying comments, that sort of thing.
This is okay, this is no doubt as it should be. Movie inventiveness should be all over this stuff, using everything, pulling from all media. In fact, it seems kind of belated, finally getting around to obvious pop culture effects and packaging them for the young’uns. They loved it at Comic-Con!
But it seems like the non-Comic-Con-goers don’t love it. Does it seem pandering? Are they sick of the bleating, narrow-shouldered Michael Cera type-casting? Do they dislike having their sense of leading epic lives pointed out for laughs, especially in the grandiose form that is cinema?
Hell, I don’t know. This movie’s not for ME. I was amused in a maternal kind of way for a while, but I felt pretty wan by the end, like I’d been in the theater a long, long time. When Jason Schwartzman finally showed up as the ultimate evil ex, now an “older man” though still as short and oddly malformed as back when he played the kid in Rushmore, I was ready to claw my way out into the light and not see any more youth movies for a while.
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