Friday, August 13, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Michael Cera and Scott Pilgrim
The action/romance/fantasy/comedy stars Michael Cera (Juno, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) as Torontonian Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old slacker and amateur musician with little drive and even less money, who meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams, fresh off the boat from the USA. Unfortunately, there’s one catch: in order to keep dating her, he must defeat her seven evil exes - in mortal combat.

When I first heard that a Hollywood film adaptation was in the works, I knew there were two directions the film could have gone: translate Toronto into a comparable American Midwest town, turning the American allure of Ramona into a New York City girl in Cleveland kind of thing, or jump into Toronto with both feet. I’m thrilled they went the second route, and I have no doubt that the Canada-chic thing will play very nicely for the key US demographic. The film was shot across Toronto last summer, and many of the books’ signature Toronto sites even made their way onto the screen — including Casa Loma, Lee’s Palace, the Sonic Boom Record Store, and an array of Canadian brands probably unknown to Americans, like the CBC, Pizza Pizza, and Second Cup. As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but see these elements as small remunerations for the hundred of times that Toronto has been forced to pass as New York, San Francisco, or Chicago on TV and film. (Despite all that, I do confess I did miss the apocalyptic duel at Honest Ed’s, but I think that was perhaps rightly understood to be a wholly untranslatable Torontoism.)

In fact, O’Malley penned the first of the “Scott Pilgrim” books in 2004 while still working at a comic book store in Toronto. The sixth and final volume was published just this past July. The black and white graphic novels are drawn with a clean, stark drawing style inspired by Japanese manga, and play host to a wide cast of slackers, amateur musicians, and video-game obsessed 20-somethings. Though the stories themselves are profoundly embedded in the urban and social geography of Toronto, by Volume 3 (Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, 2006) the series had gained an international audience. Detailing the rich inner lives of a generation raised on a steady diet of video games and indie rock, the books are clever beyond measure, laugh out loud funny, often poignant and even philosophical.

Excerpt from Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (2004)
The screenplay, co-written by directors Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, remains impressively true to the spirit and energy of  O’Malley’s books. The dialogue is almost exclusively lifted directly off the pages of the books—and this is definitely a good thing. O’Malley has an ear for the spoken word that deserved to be taken to the screen. (To pick just one favourite of mine: “Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it.”) This reverence for the source material never stooped to a slavishness reproduction, however. Wright’s staging of the fight sequences is stunning, and there is a Bollywood sequence that plays much better in the film than in the book. Needless to say, adapting the six graphic novels to a two-hour feature came at some costs. The characters of Ramona and Scott’s own poisonous ex Envy Adams (Brie Larson, United States of Tara) lack the complexity of their book counterparts. The film’s cast shines nonetheless, especially Kieran Culkin (Lymelife) as Pilgrim’s “gay roommate” and best friend, who steals almost every scene he’s in.

Adapting a beloved graphic novel to the screen is a unique challenge. (Let’s not forget the almost 25 years it took for Watchmen to finally get made.) But it seems the stars all aligned in advance to make Scott Pilgrim happen. Michael Cera, for example, may have been born to play the role of Scott Pilgrim. But as perfectly Scott Pilgrim’s retro-chic parka fits, Cera isn’t playing his usual “nice guy who lets the cute but self-involved girl walk all over him until she comes to her senses and sees him for what he is” character. Creator O’Malley describes Pilgrim as a “clueless, energetic, kind of innocent asshole.” And truth be told, Cera’s Scott Pilgrim is a bit of a dick. Still, Cera invests Pilgrim with the considerable charisma required to make the character the gawky, effortlessly cool lady-killer he needs to be.

The extended cast is a meta-story in itself. In a brilliant bit of stunt casting, two of the ‘evil exes’ Pilgrim faces off against are played by Brandon Routh (of 2006’s Superman Returns) and Chris Evans, who will come to the screen as the star of next year’s highly anticipated Captain America film. Key to a movie with such an indie music sensibility, the film’s soundtrack is equally noteworthy, with Beck composing the songs that Sex Bob-omb (Pilgrim’s struggling band) plays, and Toronto's Broken Social Scene making a cameo appearance on stage as the band's musical competition.

Brandon Routh as Ramona's third evil ex-boyfriend

Director Edgar Wright is himself uniquely suited to this project. Though this was his first US studio film, the British director is coming off the heels of the successes of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). But in many ways, the film marks a welcome return to his pre-Shaun of the Dead days. In 1999-2001, Wright and his Shaun star and co-writer Simon Pegg collaborated for two seasons on a show for Channel Four in the UK called Spaced. Spaced, a cult classic in its own right, shares many of the themes of Scott Pilgrim, telling the story of two 20-something flatmates in London whose mundane lives are punctuated by bouts of surrealism and fantasy as they struggle to deal with the everyday challenges of job hunting, dating, and trying to keep from being bored.

Wright has always had a way of tweaking a genre film so that it approaches the giddy fun of parody, but he never loses sight of the emotional human core of a story. In the end, for all of the flash and CGI, the  real substance of Scott Pilgrim's story is found in the non-fantastical stress and drama of daily life. In Scott Pilgrim’s universe, the most memorable event of the evening isn’t the epic battle, with Thor-like hammers or lip-syncing demon ‘hipster’ girls. Instead, it’s the utterly painful awkwardness of you and your new girlfriend bumping into your most recent ex, or meeting that ex’s stunningly douchey vegan boyfriend. Or more simply, working through the unintentional dishonesty of new relationships between sincere people who don’t quite know themselves. Doesn’t surviving all that make you some kind of hero?

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is over-the-top, noisy and colourful, ecstatic and (often literally) explosive fun, and for all that, the humanity of its story is never lost. This might well turn out to be the most original movie of the summer.

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television and popular culture.


  1. Wait a minute! No epic battle within Honest Ed's!? I was so looking forward to that. Maybe they couldn't get permission?

  2. Bravo! Really makes a fan of the graphic novels (which I am finishing as we/I speak) want to see the movie. I identify so much with Scott it is frightening and there is an entire generation who understand and empathize with his struggles and accomplishments, however small and personal.

  3. Mark: The 2nd-last paragraph of your review has convinced me to see this move.