Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Part I: Everyone Falls Away, From You

[Warning: the following essay contains spoilers of the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, as well as the comic series on which it was based on. I also want to apologize for the tardiness of this paper, but its been a bit trying to get back into serious writing after more than a year of not producing anything original. I will try to stick to the update schedule more rigorously in the future, and all in all, this is a case of better late than never, I hope.]

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, based on a popular comic book series. While I have been hoping to see a different film, Inception, the nearest and most accessible theater no longer carried it. However, several of my friends had already seen the film and given it positive reviews; professional film critics by and large agreed that the film was well worth the expenditure as well.[1]

However, the film has yet to perform as financially well as studio executives had hoped. The film cost an estimated $60 million and only grossed $10 million on its opening weekend; in the less than two months since then it has only grossed $31 total in the US. (Ticket sales in the UK were less than £5 million as of September 12.)[2] Within hours, news stories began floating around the web of how the film was a flop and how that would affect director Edgar Wright’s career. A Google search for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World flop” returns with 62,800 results; the first page has articles and forum posts from major geek media outlets such as Game Spot, Ain’t It Cool? News, and the Alt Film Guide.

Suffice it to say that there is more news on the financial failure of the film than the film itself. The film deserves a fair shake – the immediate labeling of the film as a flop helped, I think, to create a self-fulfilling prophecy about the movie itself. But there is more to the film than its finances that I would like to discuss because the film itself struck a chord with me that I hadn’t felt with any other film that I had seen in a theater in some time (granted that is an incredibly small number). As such, I will be discussing three topics in particular, in the following order:

1. An apologia of Michael Cera’s performance, against those who claim that casting Cera was a bad move that led to audience alienation.

2. The cinematic quality of the film, and its attempt to merge movie, comic book, videogame, and music into one holistic experience.

3. And finally, what is philosophically significant about the financial “failure” of the film and the film itself.

Each part will be its own blog post in order to keep it readable in a blog format; I hope to update throughout the week, and be done by Thursday. So, without further hesitation, I am a philosopher for hire and I’m here to critique the critiques and make you think about stuff and stuff.

Reading through the critiques of why Scott Pilgrim flopped, common trends appeared. In particular, there is one criticism that was quite prevalent and stands out to me for special consideration. Many of the articles online argued that casting Michael Cera in the lead, titular role led was a mistake, one which led to audience alienation; the common phrasing tended to be along the lines of “People are tired of seeing Cera play the same 20-something, hipster douche bag.”

Granted Cera certainly has engaged in that role fitting that stereotype before, but I must protest the assumption that that is what each of his characters are. His most famous role as George Michael Bluth on the television series Arrested Development certainly was not a hipster, nor anywhere close to it; nor was his character in Superbad or in Juno, the two most successful films he’s been in. Even his more hipster-esque roles, such as in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, have only really been hipster by association: Nick may dress like a hipster and be in an indie band, but his primary focus is not on dressing or acting cool, and he even intentionally leaves the scene to pursue something greater than a band or a fashion sense (i.e., his budding romance with Norah).

It is true that all of Cera’s characters have artificial similarities to them, but then again so does Robert De Niro, who even during his comedic turn in Meet the Parents, was simply turning his traditional stoic “hard ass” performance into the straight man contra Ben Stiller’s slapstick. And while Scott Pilgrim is certainly a hipster, and Cera certainly plays him as one, there’s more to his performance as Pilgrim than simply wearing t-shirts purchased from Value Village or Good Will with ironic catchphrases on them. In several ways, Cera’s performance is perhaps his best yet, and draws on his past performances while still crafting a character that stands apart from all prior ones.

Cera’s performance as Pilgrim relies on two of his past roles: George Michael Bluth from Arrested Development and Nick O’Leary from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. But even as he draws on these roles for guidance, they are twisted and turned into a much darker rendition (I hesitate to use the word parody here as the film is not an examination of those other works, but instead an exploration of the world set forth by the comic book). For instance, Scott Pilgrim is not a likable character: he is a flake, a slacker, he “mooches” off his friends, and treats the majority of his commitments and relationships as matters of convenience – when they stop being convenient, he stops caring. There are some moments, however, when we realize that Pilgrim is more than just an immature young adult. In his own way he realizes that his relationship with Knives Chau is unhealthy – note his reluctance to engage sexually with Knives, even at the very innocent level of kissing; it is Knives who initiates her first kiss, planting a peck on Scott’s lips before his concert. Compared this to the first night of dating Ramona, where he ends up in her bed (though they don’t have sex). Scott’s balancing act of Knives and Ramona is similar to Cera’s previous performance as George Michael, who must balance his relationship with Ann “Bland” Veal and his cousin Maeby F√ľnke. But whereas George Michael attempts to cover up his feelings for Maeby with a relationship, Scott takes a dramatically different approach. George Michael is hesitant and stumbling, relying on the women in his romantic life to make the first move; Scott, however, approaches Ramona at the first available opportunity, and deliberately seeks her out despite his previous set back at his friend’s party. Whereas George Michael hides his attraction to Maeby, writing a series of love letters that will never be sent, Scott immediately pens a song and plays it for Ramona despite its flaws. In a way, Scott is George Michael’s id, unbridled and free to pursue any romantic relationship whatever the pitfalls and dangers may be. Perhaps the key difference is that George Michael knew from the start that pursuit of his preferred relationship would have severe consequences; the internal conflict he deals with eventually forces him to abandon the entire situation in the last episode of the series. Scott doesn’t lack this knowledge, but instead lacks a critical understanding of it. He knows that dating both Knives and Ramona is wrong, not only because of social censure from his friends and family, but also because he feels no romantic connection to Knives after he meets Ramona (if he even had romantic feelings for Knives to begin with). The entire film in a way becomes a critical lens for Pilgrim to understand his own feelings and desires, and to recognize his past mistakes; his apology to his former girlfriends Kim Pine, Knives, and Ramona at the end and the fact that the power of love isn’t strong enough to defeat Gideon without the power of self respect show that Scott has to first understand his own role in the failure of his relationships before he can actually have a decent one himself.

Part of this lack of critical understanding is because of Scott’s previous failed relationship with Natalie V. “Envy” Adams (played exceptionally well by Brie Larson). Here we see Cera drawing on his role of Nick O’Leary, but again, bending the particulars into a much darker yet still comedic performance in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Cera plays the male titular role, who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), for whom he still pines; in struggling to understand the end of his relationship he makes a series of mix CDs, including original music and album cover art. But whereas Nick is depressed (the film opens with him leaving an elaborate and lengthy voice mail message to Tris) and obsessive, Scott is the radical opposite – he is manic and paranoid, seeking to avoid Natalie/Envy at every possibility. Nick doesn’t understand why his relationship with Tris ended; Scott believes he does (that his hair was getting too shaggy for Natalie/Envy), and compensates for this perceived flaw at every turn (often in a comedic fashion). In fact, the last scar to be healed, the last obstacle to be removed before he can attempt to have an honest relationship is this flaw; it takes Knives to cut away his fear of having shaggy hair so that he can fully pursue Ramona. Here Cera is in full form, his performance giving us a tantalizing view of the psychosis that drives Scott forward through one rebound after another and why his attempt to date Ramona can be more than just another rebound. In particular, his regret at awkwardly (and perhaps in the fashion of a Freudian slip, having just fought one) saying “lesbians” instead of “love” is at once, in spite of and because of the humor of the situation, both subtle and powerful. Again, we see that it takes a full progression of his character: in order to successfully realize his love of Ramona, he has to realize his own potential, not merely the relationship’s. He has to stop being in love with being in love, and must accept the possibility of failure and hurt, a possibility that he hadn’t considered in his last serious relationship (with Natalie/Envy), which left him defenseless against the angst of it ending (and thus causing his mania-paranoia).

Without drawing on these previous experiences in Arrested Development and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Cera’s performance certainly would have suffered and the film as a whole would have flagged underneath such drag. Fortunately, because he takes those prior roles and recasts them in a darker way while still retaining a funny irony about them. Scott may be George Michael’s id unleashed, or Nick’s depressive bipolar opposite, but he never falls from grace enough to become a truly unlikable character. Cera’s performance allows Scott to be wallow in pity without becoming pretentious and to sidestep conflict with his peers and girlfriends without being spineless. In a way, since he is the title star, the film rests on Cera’s shoulders, and without a doubt his performance succeeds at delivering a steady, reliable, and most importantly, enjoyable experience. To casually toss aside seeing this film simply because it contains Cera is unreasonable, especially if one is a fan of the comic series. To not like the film because of Cera’s performance is likewise indefensible aside from taste (for which there is no accounting); his performance was spot on to the character presented in the comics. If anything were true of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it is that Cera is growing as an actor even if he is playing roles that are superficially similar to one another. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he helped to craft one of the most creative films of the year (of which I will cover more of in the next posting later this week).

1: The two major film aggregation websites, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, report that the film has received generally positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 81% out of 100% based on 212 reviews with an average rating score of 7.5 out of 10; Metacritic claims an average score of 69 out of 100, based on 38 reviews. Both scores were retrieved on September 25, 2010. Full citations will be provided in the bibliography, but websites such as these often update and change, as will most of the online citations that I will provide in the final post of this review.

2: These numbers are all from the Internet Movie Data Base. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0446029/business, retrieved September 25, 2010.

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