Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Film

If you've seen me in person at all the past few months, I've probably mentioned Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to you. I first saw the trailer back when I saw The A-Team, and as you can imagine from the fact that I would constantly re-watch the trailers at home whenever I had a free moment, I've been looking forward to it ever since. What can I say? The trailers have been instant merriment, a quick pick-me-up during a dull moment. And so when I finally had the chance to see the whole damn thing this past Thursday, I was confident that it would easily stride atop of my movie rankings, or very close thereof. And having just completed the six-set graphic novel collection by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley, I was even more excited, having already been drawn into the story of one young man's quest to defeat his new girlfriend's seven evil exes who are out to make her new boyfriend's life a living hell.

Of course, the movie wouldn't even be in existence if not for the pre-existing graphic novel. Published by Oni Press, the first volume of the Scott Pilgrim series, called Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, was released in August of 2004 and immediately the idea of adapting it into a movie was begun, with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) brought in almost immediately. Though most of the story had yet to be committed to paper, O'Malley was very involved in the creation of the script, with several of his dialogue lines and plot bits making their way to the movie, and in return, several of the scripts used had influence in volumes 3 and 4 of the graphic novel.

The Gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead
You'll notice that I say "graphic novel" and not "manga" in referring to Scott Pilgrim, though one could be forgiven for confusing this title with the latter. The books are designed not unlike those one would see in section of your local bookstore consigned to the popular Japanese import titles. Black and white, with rare color pages, big eyes, and exaggerated animations, it's not unlike many eastern titles on the market. O'Malley was in fact influenced by manga, but his style is really closer to, say, Chynna Clugston's Blue Monday than Tite Kubo's Bleach. It's got tons of western influence as well, and it's setting in frigid Canada already sets itself apart from most titles in general.

The Scott Pilgrim series starts out great and gets better with every volume, eventually winning Harvey and Eisner awards for their strong character development, funny dialogue, crazy action, and possibly most important, a believably developing relationship between Scott and the love of his life, Ramona Flowers. With such high standards for storytelling and with excellent trailers paving the way for what we expect to see the most entertaining film this year, can the truth live up even close to the hype? In an answer, no.

Scott Pilgrim Kicks Ass
The film starts strong, following closely to the story of the first volume of the graphic novel, the only title in the series finished before scripts had begun to be written. In it, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a slacker and part-time bassist for the band Sex Bob-Omb (Names after the explosive Super Mario villain) with his friends Stephen Stills on guitar (Mark Webber), Kim Pine on drums (Alison Pill), and "Young" Neil who's their biggest fan boy (Johnny Simmons). The 23-year old Pilgrim has just begun dating a high-schooler, 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), with whom he likes spending time because this kind of relationship is "easy" for him, one year after a particularly break-up. He shares an apartment (and bed) with his gay friend Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and for the time being, life seems easy. That changes when he sees a mysterious stranger in a dream, who eventually turns out to be the very real Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American who just moved to Toronto to start over and get away from her past. That past manifests itself as the League of Evil Exes, made up of seven evil people who blame Ramona for ruining their lives and seeking that she should never be involved with be taken out of the picture, ensuring Ramona could never be happy in a relationship. The various fight scenes (and actually, many other parts of the movie) are very much inspired by video games and music, creating a unique, and outrageous, way of pushing the story forward in a way that has never been done on the big screen before. So from the point that Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) crashes a battle of the bands meet to fight Scott on, our hero is constantly on the defensive, worried about from where the next attack may arrive.
L-R: Cera, Winstead, Simmons, Wong, Pill, Webber

The acting in the film is quite good, with several of the supporting roles cast able to almost perfectly embody the graphic novel's unique conceptions, especially Wong as the Scott-crazy high-schooler Knives and Culkin as the scene-stealing Wallace. Both actors manage to perfectly personify their roles and expand upon what's known from the comic. Pill, Webber and Simmons are good as the band-mates, though little is done with them. Anna Kendrick had not yet been nominated for her Oscar for Up in the Air when shooting of this film had begun but provides much spunk for her relatively small role, and Winstead takes a great opportunity and does a fantastic job with the lead role she's been given. It's almost unfortunate that Cera is the weakest link in this ensemble cast. He plays the nerd card right, but I'm beginning to wonder if there's much range in his performances, as he's pretty much playing a slightly-older version of his character from Arrested Development, albeit with fighting prowess. He just lacks a small part of Scott's personality, his utter devotion to Ramona, that detracts from his performance. And that's why it's a shame that the ensemble cast isn't given more of a chance to shine, like they are in the comics. It's a minor quibble, but more of Kim Pine or Envy Adams (Brie Larsen) would not have hurt the story, especially since it had been pared down to a scant 112 minutes. That's a LOT of character development cut out.

The League of Evil Exes
The exes are a good variety, with the personas mostly consistent with the books. Matthew Patel is exactly the same as his print version, not surprising since the entire story to that point is a slightly truncated copy of the first book. But skateboarder/action star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) is much different from his character in the book, who wasn't even evil, just a sellout. Parenthood's Mae Whitman is good-but-not-great as the fourth evil ex, the lesbian half-ninja Roxy Richter. But the true standout of the exes is Brandon "Superman" Routh as Todd Ingram, rock star bassist, third evil ex, and the current boyfriend of Envy Adams, Scott's ex-girlfriend. Routh manages to convey humor in silent delivery. Never mind that the lines aren't ad-libbed (they appear exactly the same in the third volume) his delivery is perfect and who knew Routh could actually ACT?? His was a pleasant surprise, easily the best part of the movie. Too bad it was squarely in the middle, as Jason Schwartzman, while seemingly cast as the penultimate evil ex-boyfriend, doesn't stack up as a main villain as he should. Even worse, the Katayanagi twins, evil exes 5 and 6, are turned from robot-building geniuses into a pair of anonymous pop stars, with not a single line of dialogue between them. The castration of their roles was not only a side-effect of the movie entering production before the comic was finished, but apparently the lack of interest the filmmakers had in new evil characters by this point and rushed through them to get to Schwartzman. In fact, from about halfway through the Roxy Richter story onward, the movie feels a little forced. A shame that such potentially interesting characters are tossed aside like garbage.

Brandon Routh shows off his vegan psychic powers
And this leads to my ultimate gripes about the movie. It would be folly to exactly convert a good story like that in the Scott Pilgrim books directly into a film, because then you'd have a six-hour film and no matter how good a performance is, it rarely will keep an audience in the spirit for that long. However, so much was cut out of the stories that it practically makes the story somewhat unbelievable (okay, as unbelievable as a story involving quick-travel dimensions, mystic Indian warriors, psychic vegan rockers, lesbian half-ninjas, and enemies that explode into currency can be) over the course of the film. Lack of minor character development is one problem. Scott's previous relationships before Ramona, including those with Kim and Envy (whose breakup had a heavy toll for Scott) are barely mentioned. Kim has been reduced to a useless wise-cracker for whom the story at large has no meaning, and Envy had a much bigger role in the books, but in the movie that ends with Todd's defeat. Those characters, as well as Scott's old high-school friend Lisa Miller (who's completely cut out of the film adaptation) are major factors in the continual degradation of the Scott/Ramona relationship over the course of the book's story, replaced in the film by Ramona simply being tired of her past catching up to her, and Scott's fear that he'll lose Ramona. These things DO have impact in the books, but on a much smaller scale. But the biggest issue the film has may be it's time line. In the books, more than a year passes between the events of volumes 1 and 6. That's a lot of time for character, relationship and plot development. In the movies, this time is scaled down to a couple of WEEKS at most. It's one thing to speed up the pattern of ex-attacks, another thing to speed up a story to fit more snugly into film-length entertainment, but the ups and downs of Scott and Ramona's relationship is believable BECAUSE it takes place over so long a period of time. The wear and tear that exists between them is a result of small things over a length of time, not big things over the short term. And cutting the film short means Scott doesn't even get to do any of the major steps forward he performs in volume 4, such as successfully getting a job and moving in with Ramona. In all, the comic featured a realistic relationship during unrealistic scenarios. With the movie, the realism of the relationship is gone. And to add insult to injury by the end, we're led to believe that he'd be better off back with Knives than Ramona.

Big Hammer
So does that mean I didn't like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Oh, no, I liked it. I liked it A LOT. I had serious issues with the movie, mostly due to the graphic novel series still being so fresh in my mind, though the film had enough foibles of it's own. No, the excellent use of video game imagery to tell the story, outrageous humor, and the amazing acting from the ensemble cast, still puts it high on my chart for the year, even if it fell far short on expectations. I may not have loved it quite so much as I had been sure I would, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World still ends up ranked at #5 on my top 10 list for the year.

That's right. I have a top 10 movies list.



Opinioness of the World said...

I'll have you know that I so want to see this film...and so will NOT be reading your review until after I've seen it. My glancing eye caught "vegan"...yay!! Unless Brandon Routh makes vegans look like asshats...

Gianni said...

I'll leave it to you to discover that.