I always find it difficult to critique a film when I’m a fan of the source material. Playing the continual game of compare and contrast in my head tends to leave me a bit muddled. Am I appreciating the film on its own merits or do I just like it because it’s a spin-off of something I’ve really, really like a whole lot? Am I griping about it because it’s legitimately flawed or because it doesn’t match up with the perfect movie version I’ve been playing in my head for months on end? Are my criticisms fair and balanced or sloppily biased? Am I just playing yet another round of “Well, it’s not how I would have done it”? Obviously any review is subjective, but am I being subjective in a totally objective way? ‘Tis a puzzlement.
So I’m not sure what to say about the new Scott Pilgrim Vs the World film, which I happened to catch a preview of at my local cinema center last week. I liked it; it’s peppy and entertaining and, at least on a surface level, extremely faithful to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work. Yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t have flaws — flaws that, depending upon what drew you to the graphic novels, may sink the movie for you.
Spoilers await after the jump.
As you might expect with a comic series that spans six volumes and more than 1,500 pages, a bit of compression is needed to make the film fit its hour and a half running time. What’s impressive is just how much director Edgar Wright and company were able to contain. All seven evil-ex battles are here, as is a good chunk of author Bryan Lee O’Malley’s dialogue — about 90 percent, by my account, seems to be taken verbatim from the books, though switched around to different speakers occasionally.
With all that compression, though, it’s natural for things to get left out. The fight sequences are the main ingredients here, to the point where many of the supporting characters are relegated to snappy-sidekick status. That’s not so much of a problem for someone like roommate Wallace Wells, but it hurts much of the rest of the cast, especially the female half, like Kim Pine, who is reduced to becoming a snappy, snark-pouting machine. No one gets off worse than Envy Adams, though, whose cartoonish, one-note bitchiness makes you wonder what Scott ever saw in her in the first place, or vice-versa. Whereas the books suggested that everyone — even Young Neil — had a life apart from Scott, the movie decidedly doesn’t. Here, Scott is the sun around which all other planets revolve.
That’s kind of a problem, since one of the big themes in the series (as I interpret it anyway) involves Scott realizing that the world does not in fact revolve around him. Scott is charming, but he can be callous and selfish in his treatment of his friends and lovers, a fact which O’Malley often underscores by focusing on other characters’ back stories, Kim’s in particular. As the series progresses, Scott’s cluelessness becomes less enduring and more irritating, as it should. In the movie version, though, why should the audience care what Kim does in her spare time? She’s not Scott Pilgrim, the hero of the movie.
The only character who seems to be raised above minor supporting status (except for Ramona, of course) would be Knives Chau. Indeed, her character arc is changed somewhat so that she morphs from weepy, clingy, naive teen into a sincerely possible contender for Scott’s affections. By the end of the film, as the pair were actively whomping on the film’s “big boss,” I wasn’t sure if Knives was going to end up with Scott after all, and I wasn’t sure whether I minded if she did.
And that’s another problem with the film. Since the focus in on Scott and his battles against the evil exes, the relationship between Ramona and him, speeded up from a year to about a month or so, suffers a bit as well. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Ramona as so mysterious and aloof that we’re never quite sure what she sees in Scott or whether she’s worth all the attention. Most of their scenes together involve engaging in annoyed banter that makes explicit the things that O’Malley left lying under the surface. Again, it’s necessary, given the film’s running time, but I felt like I never got the chance to see them actually be a couple.
Wright goes to great pains to ensure that the look and feel of the film mimics the original material, if not literally then at least in as much spirit as humanly possible. Sound effects explode in the sky like an episode of the Adam West Batman show. The screen is divided into “panels” to mimic actual comics as frequently as possible. Video game references — life bars, power-ups, basso voices intoning “fight” — abound. And indie rock blasts from the speakers at every opportunity (the soundtrack is one of the best things about the movie). Even those sequences where the movie deviates from the printed material (the Todd Ingram fight, the last one-third of the film) are given, at great pains, the same carefree, pop culture mash-up spirit that O’Malley’s work so clearly inspired. (The one possible exception may be the battle with Roxy Richter, but I’ll let Jog describe that sequence for you.)
My earlier comments aside, the cast does a decent job with the material. Michael Cera makes for a better Pilgrim than I think many pundits, myself included, had initially expected, though he lacks the wide-eyed exuberance of comic-book Scott. The standouts, though, tend to be the evil exes, particularly a hammy Satya Bhabha as Matthew Patel, Chris Evans as Lucas Lee, Brandon Routh as Todd Ingram, and Jason Schwartzman as an insufferably smug Gideon Graves.
What Scott Pilgrim ultimately amounts to, however, is a run-of-the-mill Hollywood romance, the kind that Michael Cera usually stars in, albeit one with lots of fourth-wall breaking, great music and sly references to dated bits of pop culture.
But that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. Despite my long list of complaints, I can’t say that I hated the Scott Pilgrim movie. In fact, for the most part I enjoyed it. For all its faults it remains an engaging, entertaining piece of cinema that, while missing some of the elements that are central to the comic for me, is clever, entertaining, funny and gosh-darned speedy enough to not make me mind, beyond pointing it out in an overlong movie review like this one. Wright’s film is much shallower than what spawned it, but when is that not the case?