Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 14, 2010 2:16 pm 
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Supernerd strikes again

"The first rock & roll kung fu videogame youth love story," says one description of this new vehicle for the popular geeky star Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno), which is based on a graphic novel series. It's a hybrid, as well as a fresh young charmer that sadly wears out its welcome half way through.

The premise is this: Scott is a 22-year-old bass player in a terrible Toronto band. He falls for a "dangerously fashionable, roller blading delivery girl" with punk hair called Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American transplant who "starts cruising through his dreams and sailing by him at parties." He's smitten. His cheery band-groupie high school girlfriend ("and she's Chinese") Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) becomes irrelevant. The cool Ramona likes Scott too. But it turns out he must fight off Ramona's seven "evil exes." This iron-clad, if inexplicable, rule is going to shape all the reels to come.

The dialogue is witty and smart, especially at first. A lot of cartoonish, video game captions in the air ("Pow," "thunk," etc.) and other devices like scores and labels for new characters increase the feeling that this is a lively and quick-witted movie for and about the video game, texting, Facebook generation. Scott's intro line with Ramona is a silly factoid about the origins of the name Pac-Man, a bit of gaucherie he later denies. Cera has cool, quick delivery and good timing, which also help. So does the presence of Kieran Culkin (also a child star, from a child star family) as Scott's sarky, more mature gay roommate Wallace.

Kieran Culkin is aging convincingly. But Cera, what of him? The androgynous, squeaky-voiced Canadian has been acting since he was eleven: he's a pro. Paradoxically, he projects his insecure young men roles with utter ease and confidence: there's got to be an element of the passive-aggressive in this whole nerd-superman concept. Though Cera's character is 22, and seems to have had a string of girlfriends, it's logical that Scott's dating a high school girl. Cera seemed fresh and charming in his first big roles. He can project a wistful, romantic quality that came through nicely in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Now he seems to be playing roles tailored exclusively for him, like Youth in Revolt, based on a not-very-profound series of young adult novels (contrast the tougher, more honest writing of S.E. Hinton that produced a quartet of classic Eighties youth pictures). Youth in Revolt wound up rather limp as a movie -- and began to show Cera's lack of range, which is not disguised by the massive use of loud fast CGI for his duels with ex-boyfriends of his girlfriend here.

Actually in Scott Pilgrim Ramona is the character who seems most real. Winstead's speech sounds more sincere and less arch than anybody else's. Her character perhaps is so cool she need not put spin on her words.

“They make movies in Toronto?" So goes a little throwaway lines in this movie. Tons of movies are made there, of course, but it stands in for somewhere else. Scott Pilgrim is a flick made in that city that's actually set there. This little joke is one of many throwaways and one-liners early on that create a certain effervescence. It's not all that funny, but at that point the movie hasn't burned up its cred and everything brings a smile, and there are plenty of full-on laughs too.

But then Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's fortunes go south. Strangely, this little indie comedy turns into a noisy CGI-ridden feast of pointless violence that makes you want to hold your ears and look at your watch. Why does this happen? One reason is that Edgar Wright, the director, hitherto renowned for the already classic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and the charming, energetic cop comedy Hot Fuzz, is English. Both films are deeply rooted in Englishness. If Toronto has a native spirit, Wright isn't tuned in to it. Scott Pilgrim tries to be about so many things and the fault is in the writing. Why should Scott have to battle all these exes to begin with?

Scott's forced battles become repetitious. The theme of repetition itself is forced on us. Not only is one of the exes actually twins. Scott himself is doubled at one point, and a movie star ex (occasion for that Toronto joke) turns out to have half a dozen stunt doubles who fight for him while he goes out for coffee. The climactic scene where Scott confronts rock impresario ex Brendan, played by Jason Schwartzman, another actor not aging well, seems heavy-handed. It's run twice, once with Scott's fighting strength empowered by love, the second by his need for self-respect. It's frankly hard to see much difference between these two versions. You may just wanted it to end. But it has to end twice, and the closing credits are very drab.

The fight sequences have flashy moments and it's droll to have an androgynous nerd battling Superman (Brandon Routh) and, as the movie star, a champion skateboarder (Lucas Lee). Music for Scott's band, Sex-Bob-Omb, was written by Beck. A lot is going on, and many of the invasive visual tricks work because they speed up the action (all very youth-ADD-text messaging friendly). Nothing here is for slow people. If anything the trouble is not that Wright is a slouch, for he is anything but. It's that he tries too hard. That was true to some extent in Hot Fuzz. And most of the characters introduced at the beginning who contributed to the feeling of being in a real place are thrown away, ceasing to matter, except for brief visual recognition, toward the end.

At moments the wintry exteriors of Scott Pilgrim's Toronto and his too-cool, geeky, slightly depressed young friends will bring to mind Terry Zwigoff's 2001 Ghost World, also made from a graphic novel, also populated by slackers. Probably Scott Pilgrim could have got by with a measure of its Pow! and Thunk! labels and cyber-world air battles, and still created something of the atmosphere and feel of real young lives as Ghost World quite hauntingly does. But that didn't happen, and all I got was a metaphorical lousy T shirt saying I've seen another Michael Cera movie.

Opened in US theaters August 13, 2010.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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