This movie has “vs” in the title so you KNOW it’s classy.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World was practically designed to be a cult film rather than a big hit, but it still didn’t deserve to bomb like it did. There are certainly some strange decisions and missteps, and course a film like this lives or dies on how well its “tone” resonates… and this kind of tone is incredibly hard to get right. But if anyone could do it, it was the mad genius filmmaker Edgar Wright, flexing his impressive cinematic muscles to give audiences a one-of-a-kind experience: a real-life comic book/video game of a movie. Audiences were divided on how much they liked watching a bunch of aimless hipster kids walking around a cartoon-ish world, but everyone can agree there’s nothing quite like this movie’s particular brand of playfulness.
Compounding the hard sell of this unusual approach was the unfortunate timing: Scott Pilgrim vs The World debuted just after the public had turned against its star, Michael Cera, in a big way. Seemingly overnight (it looks like the disastrous Year One was the turning point) America went from loving Cera’s trademark “smart but hapless wimp” routine to absolutely despising it, thus once again proving the wisdom of The Simpsons. (Many haters ding Cera ostensibly for only having one “persona,” but come on, not every actor is in the Daniel Day-Lewis mold. Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars also basically did the same thing every movie. How many times did Clark Gable play a nerd?)
Anyway, I personally really dig it, and find it gets better with re-watching. It’s also an inevitable subject for the blog, but we’ll be grading with a different sort of scale in mind. The fighting, while often surprisingly complex, is also lighter and of less consequence than the average in-depth movie fight… which is to be expected, since it’s more of a comedy. So we’ll keep in mind not just how well done the combat is but the overall effect of the scene itself. And though each entry will be about a specific Evil Ex, we’ll naturally be skipping the three whose battles involve little to no genuine fighting. Sorry, Todd and the twins.
1) Matthew Patel
- Scott Pilgrim, the film’s titular hero, a hapless 20-something slacker/hipster with no job and a wonderfully naive teenage girlfriend. In pointed contrast to his personal aimlessness and generally wussy demeanor, he’s inexplicably amazing at fighting (in the movie it’s not remarked upon, but in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original comic book it’s casually mentioned that Scott is “the best fighter in the province”). Played by Michael Cera, who unfortunately is the film’s weak link. Though he tries mightily and even stretches a bit, there is just something off about Cera’s take on Pilgrim, who in the books was more of a manic livewire in addition to being dumb & unambitious– he had a kind of Jack Black-like intensity rather than Cera’s typical low-key, lovable beta male. So perhaps the trouble with the character comes from the awkward dissonance of fitting the square peg into a round hole. And to be fair to Cera, when you get right down to it there’s not much to actually like about Scott Pilgrim for much of the story: he’s an objectively bad person.
- Matthew Patel, Ramona’s first Evil Ex-Boyfriend; they dated for about a week and a half in seventh grade. A young man of Indian descent with advanced fighting skills, supernatural powers, and an odd fashion sense, Patel is arguably the most overtly cartoonish of all the film’s villains. Played by Satya Bhabha, who does a great job with what could have been a very annoying part in the wrong hands.
The Setup: Scott Pilgrim is a strikingly unambitious youth in the mystical land of Canada, 23-year-old Scott is now finding his precious little life a lot more interesting as he pursues the mysterious newcomer Ramona Flowers. Through unexplained means, word of his interest in Ramona has spread to the League of Evil Exes, seven of Ramona’s former romantic partners who seek to control her future love life by making any new lover go through them. (It’s a metaphor, see.) Scott would have clued into this earlier but, foolishly, he only skimmed the email warning him of the consequences of his attraction.
For his first quasi-date with Ramona, Scott takes her to a club where he and his friends are competing in a battle of the bands. Scott’s actual girlfriend, Knives Chau, conveniently passes out from pure excitement early into the band’s first number. Also on hand at the event are Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, his little sister (rated T for Teen) Stacy, and Stacy’s date, who is unbeknownst to her being quietly seduced by Wallace. And that date must be really gay, because let’s face it gents: there’s regular gay, and there’s “walk away from Anna Kendrick” gay.
Sex Bob-omb (that’s the name of Scott’s band, because of course it is) is doing pretty well, when suddenly they’re interrupted by the crashing arrival of Matthew Patel.
The Fight: Crashing, specifically, through the ceiling, free-falling down and calling out Scott’s name as he does so.
There’s a great slow-motion sequence of Scott reacting with genuine puzzlement, finally only being spurred into action by Wallace’s gleeful urging to fight. Pilgrim unplugs his guitar, blocks the diving attack, and counters with a sweet punch that sends Patel flying back.
He lands okay, but after some more sardonic assistance from Wallace (“Watch out! It’s that one guy”), Scott counters Matthew’s next charge with a face-kick that shoots him into the air. Scott leaps up high in pursuit and gives a follow-up uppercut and a 64-hit punch combo.
They both come down and land in that “versus” image from way up top, and here’s where they start jawing. The weirdo introduces himself and explains he’s the first Evil Ex. In a movie full of over-the-top characters, Matthew Patel is particularly over-the-top… and in a very un-ironic and cartoonish way, what with all his jerky head movements, exaggerated body poses, speech contortions and guyliner. So again, all props to Bhabha for pulling off so well. (He’s barely recognizable from his other major claim to fame, his lengthy run in season two of New Girl.)
The two engage in some more down-to-Earth sparring. It’s surprisingly complex and reasonably “realistic” though of course very stylized. Mostly a lot of blocks and near-misses. Both Cera and Bhabha, neither of them experienced martial artists, acquit themselves well. Wright’s camera work, as expecting, is dynamic and exciting, as if he’d been directing fight scenes for years. One nice touch is the use of a special kind of dust applied to the actors’ clothes that shakes off and briefly lingers in the air with every impact– one of the many tricks Hong Kong action stars use to accentuate each blow.
While most of the crowd is excited, Ramona appears visibly embarrassed at being the cause of this, and there are repeated cutaways to Stacy making expressions of disbelief– essentially as a way to tell the more skeptical audience members Hey, it’s okay, this is silly, you can laugh at it. Which might seem like unnecessary hand-holding, but you’d be surprised how slow some audiences are.
Speaking of puzzlement, Scott is still confused at what’s going on here, and he stops long enough to ask Patel what his deal is, which is when the villain is irked to learn that Scott blew off his explanatory email. Also between rounds of heightened fighting (and as Matthew starts to get in some solid hits), people in the crowd inquire about his outfit and ask if he’s a “pirate,” which is odd because aside from the Jack Sparrow-esque guyliner he doesn’t really look like a pirate. And Ramona is finally goaded into explaining her brief history with Matthew, in a strange half-poem accompanied by illustrations straight out of the comic (or possibly new drawings by O’Malley just for the movie).
When Scott reacts incredulously to Ramona’s mention of Matthew’s “mystical powers,” the evil ex decides that’s his cue to exercise them, floating in the air, conjuring fire in his hands and summoning a pack of “demon hipster chicks.” He does all this while singing and dancing a Bollywood-esque number. It’s… well, for me it was a little much, even for this movie’s wacky concept of reality. I suppose everyone has to draw the line somewhere.
So that weirdness happens and Patel starts flinging fireballs mid-song, all of which Scott dodges and one of which vaporizes a pair of roadies. Angrily noting that Matthew’s last two lines didn’t even rhyme, Pilgrim grabs a cymbal from Kim Pine’s drum set and hurls it Patel, hitting him hard enough to dispel the demon hipster chicks and leave him spinning vulnerably in the air. Scott takes the opportunity to leap in with a devastating punch that finishes off the evil ex for good, turning him into a handful of coins a la River City Ransom.
If there’s any real problem (aside from the Bollywood stuff) with this, it’s that it seems to lack a sense of… scale? Weight? Consistency? Other than the fact that it’s the end of a fight, there’s no extra oomph to Scott’s last punch that indicates it should even be a finishing move– Patel didn’t seem tired at all before that, and he endured several blows that seemed just as powerful earlier on and came down smiling. The fight only ends because it seems like it was time to end. Which, come to think of it, might play into the story’s themes: Scott feels like he’s the main character in his own movie, and that everything should eventually go his way just because he’s, well, himself, regardless of whether he’s earned it or not.
In any case, it feels odd to criticize such an achievement as this. The movie actually took plenty of time to get to its first fight– enough time for Wright to lay the groundwork for the movie’s strange, hyper-stylized world. If this had come much earlier it would have been quite jarring even for the more patient fan. And what a payoff it is: finally we’re treated to the sight of real human beings flipping about like characters from a video game or anime but without it seeming painfully fake or dumb. There’s visual onomatopoeia incorporated in a much less intrusive way than in the old 60s Batman cartoon. Explosions and flashes of color change the entire screen filter for brief seconds before switching back (something you appreciate a lot more when looking for just the right screenshot, mind you). There’s a great mixture of the immediate and the spectacular, the thrilling and the ridiculous. Edgar Wright can basically do anything, and here he did something very, very fun.
Coming Attractions: Our Canadian slacker hero fights an American superhero. Kinda.