Monday, August 16, 2010
I will be curious to see if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can get beyond the curse of a disappointing opening weekend to build on word-of-mouth – its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a solid 80%, 8.0 on IMDB’s 1-to-10 rating scale – or whether the film will capsize under its very own strengths.
If the filmmakers want to know why the picture tanked on its first weekend, all they have to do is to check the demographics of their receipts – there could not have been more than 3 women in the (mostly empty) theater where I saw the film, and the IMDB ratings Saturday night were as follows:
Being the internet, all IMDB stats skew male – 60% of the ratings for Sex and the City were from guys – but these numbers border on 86%. This suggests a gender disturbance in the force, so to speak, which may seem odd to somebody who doesn’t know the comics on which this film was based, given that it’s about a sensitive guy who has to learn to trust his feelings, with two strong female characters (Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Ellen Wong) playing against Michael Cera’s oh-so-vulnerable title role.
But how are women viewers going to know that they may like this movie if they can’t tell what it’s about? I couldn’t tell what it was about – it looked a live action cartoon mish-mash in the trailers – since I don’t read the comics on which it’s based. I went on the recommendation of my sons, plus a few good reviews. This is where Edgar (Shaun of the Dead) Wright’s innovative direction creates problems instead of solutions. The film’s strength is that it can do five or six things at once, but the marketers never figured out which of these to promote. This is a smart, fast-moving film filled with allusions & references & not afraid to shift genres – anime one moment, brat pack retro romantic comedy the next, Bollywood musical after that – all in a matter of seconds. The referential world of this film wobbles & transforms constantly, but the narrative does not – this is a story all about the evolution of Scott’s feelings, and it stays focused on that from the first frame to the last. And it does this with good performances throughout, an ensemble cast that includes Jason Schwartzman & Anna Kendrick channeling Parker Posey.
Cera’s geeky title character is just getting over a failed romance & the awkwardness of this process is what animates the tale. Scott finds himself going with one girl – still in high school – who idolizes this 24-year-old bass-playing slacker while all his pals roll their eyes at the immaturity this suggests on his part. Then he finds himself attracted to another woman, older and both wiser & wilder than he is. To “win” her, he must conquer her seven deadly ex-lovers, but he still hasn’t extracted himself from the first girl. Meanwhile, his band is competing in a contest to win a three-record deal.
Everything you need to know about the plot is pretty much contained in that paragraph, but what makes this film much better than the average romantic comedy is how subtly it shows such things as Dance Dance Revolution as a platform for flirting, lightning-fast repartee among Scott & his band-mates or his gay roommate (played by one of the 47 Culkin brothers), or tidbits imported from video games (when Scott urinates, a “pee bar” appears on screen to index his progress emptying his bladder, vanquished opponents explode into coins, score being kept throughout the film). The seven deadly exes are themselves a study in bad choices. At least, Ramona never made the same mistake in love twice (unless you count the twins).
The film is by no means perfect – the last ten minutes in particular whirls together into far too neat a narrative bow, the battle scenes are too repetitive – the exception is when Scott & a musician foe have a “bass-off” – & it would be interesting to see anybody of African heritage in this otherwise multicultural version of present-day Toronto. It would also be interesting to see Michael Cera in a role where he isn’t the sensitive lad with a heart of gold. Imagine him, say, as the baby-faced preacher in There Will Be Blood. Instead he seems to be shooting for the Tom Hanks-Toby Maguire franchise.¹
Still, this is a marvelous little movie that doesn’t present itself easily as a film product. I’m reminded of an exec I know in the tech industry who used to employ an ad agency that would come in & present multiple options for a new campaign, and who used to say “I want A from this presentation, B from that one, C from the third.” The advertising pros (and his own marketing people) would very patiently explain that it doesn’t work like that. You can’t have a second idea in a marketing campaign, it’ll only confuse the prospects. ² The promotions for Scott Pilgrim appear to have worked, but only for people already familiar with the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novels. This film probably should have advertised itself as a romantic comedy with anime-culture aspects. Once you’re in the theater, you’re in for an unusual experience: teen culture that is legitimately smart.
¹ Two actors, in any event, who’ve done their best work either away from type (Hanks in Philadelphia, Maguire in Brothers) or playing against it (Private Ryan, The Ice Storm). Cera would do well to find his inner Steve Buscemi & let him loose.
². This is why Geico, the ad-intensive insurance agency, has multiple campaigns. You will never see a gecko with a caveman.