Fantasia 2010 Review
Last night I dared to say on Twitter that, after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, director Edgar Wright is on his way to gaining status as an auteur. This sparked a lively debate among friends on whether this was true, or even what the definition is of an auteur. To my mind, an auteur is a director whose work is instantly recognizable, no matter what the narrative of their film entails, and who tells stories in a way that is both familiar and refreshing with each film. I stand by my statement that Wright puts such a unique mark on his work that with a few more films, he could easily join auteur ranks.
Based on a graphic novel series by Canadian author & artist Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim tells the story of a young Toronto slacker (Michael Cera) who shares a basement bachelor apartment with his best friend (Kieran Culkin), plays in a so-so band (Sex Bob-omb), and is dating a high school girl names Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). At a party one night, he meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he somehow manages to charm. But, in order to continue dating her, he must defeat her seven evil exes. These battles are fought in classic 1980s video-game style (think early Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros).
No film is ever going to be the same as the book from which it is adapted. One cannot go into a film expecting it to be the same, nor criticize it for what it might be missing. This is especially difficult for graphic novel adaptations that are not animated, as there are both images and words to consider. In adapting the visual style, though, Wright smartly finds a way both to enhance it, while remaining true to the source material. Unlike some directors who try to show still moments in an effort to replicate graphic novel/comic book style, Wright knows that film is about movement, and finds the movement from the page and pumps it up for the screen.
“Pump it up” is probably quite an understatement for this film. The film begins with an adaptation of the Universal logo to make it look like a old-school video game logo, inducting the viewer into the style of film they are about to watch. Wright’s signature use of whip pans and fast zoom and editing are heightened almost to the point of being a blur. Wright incorporates the live action with labels identifying the various characters, uses split screen, uses Batman-style graphics on action moves, and edits cuts together faster than Scott can order books on Amazon. The first half of the film keeps up a frenetic pace; in fact, it almost is too frenetic. The few times it slows down, such as a sweet scene in a snowy park when Scott and Ramona first get to know each other, the audience collectively seemed to breathe a small sigh of relief. But then again, this is a film for the texting generation, those who have grown up with cell phones, email, a video game controller in their hand and the ability to shoot virtual zombies without batting an eye. As Scott makes his way through the exes, each one more difficult to defeat than the last (a further homage to the video game story format, with the exes as the “bosses”), the pace slows down a bit, giving Scott and the audience time and space to contemplate his actions.
As for the performers, I don’t think there was a single character that is miscast. Cera proves he can play beyond the George Michael type-casting he has been stuck in, imbuing Scott with an odd combination of laziness and energy; Winstead does indeed have eyes that mesmerize; Culkin makes his Wallace the definition of coolness and dry, sarcastic wit; Alison Pill is beautifully cynical as drummer Kim Pine; and Jason Schwartzman as the ultimate ex, Gideon Graves, manages to ooze sex appeal at the same time as being an evil nerd.
Canadian director Norman Jewison once said that the story was the most important part of any film. And Wright is certainly a director who understands the importance of story. It is never lost in the film; all of the special effects are there as complements to the story, as a way of understanding the state of mind of Scott and his generation. These are their cultural references: the video games, the texting, the parties, the music. At its heart, it’s a story of two people in love trying to overcome their baggage.
Where the film falters is in the dialogue. While not terrible, is lacks the bite from previous Wright films. Much of it seems to be lifted directly from the books; but words that work well on a page, being read, do not always work well when spoken aloud in a film. It is possible that the months of publicity, with daily photos from Wright, countless trailers, and general knowledge of the film might detract from enjoyment of the final product. It is also possible that to someone with no knowledge of the books (I have read the first four) will have a hard time comprehending the aesthetics. But unlike other directors, Wright knows how to put together a film seemlessly, without self-conscious effort or forcing an awareness on the part of the audience that they are supposed to be devoting their attention to one thing and not another. This is definitely a film that needs repeated viewings, as it is impossible to catch everything in one sitting (I can imagine how dense the DVD commentary will be.) And while not a perfect film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is pretty damn great.
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