Scott Pilgrim vs. Reality

Culture, Film, Media — By on August 31, 2010 at 6:30 am

Full disclosure: I have never read one of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic novels about Scott Pilgrim and his epic of epic epicness.  But my students insisted last week that I had to see the film adaptation because it was, well, epic.  And really, you should do something fun after you’ve survived the first week of the school year, so it didn’t take much convincing.  Giant Coke in hand like all good movie consumers, I settled down for a good ride as Scott Pilgrim battled seven evil exes for the heart of Ramona Flowers.

Epic’s a good word for the film.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has a stunning visual style that draws upon recent innovations like Speed Racer, Stranger Than Fiction, Kung Fu Hustle, and the classic live-action Batman tv series.  Although it borrows from many sources, it managed to use those tropes to create its own aesthetic.  It’s a graphic novel in motion, far better than earlier attempts like Ang Lee’s ghastly adaptation of The Hulk or Bryan Singer’s far more successful X-Men series.  Rather than rely purely on comic style framing like Singer, or creative editing like Lee, director Edgar Wright embraces all aspects of the comic realm, from the cheesy to the dramatic, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World crackles with the energy of a great video game and sparkles like a new purchase from ThinkGeek. Wright infuses every moment of the film with this new hybrid reality.  Scott Pilgrim’s world feels like Street Fighter met the Powerpuff Girls, duked it out, then went to the nicer parts of Sin City for several thousand shots of espresso while listening to Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.

The film winks at itself in every frame.  When visual cues don’t let the audience in on the joke of Scott Pilgrim’s ridiculous video game life, sound effects from classic Nintendo and arcade games stand in for them.  Every high schooler I know is head over heels for Scott and his Herculean labors.  His lion skin cloak might be a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt and his club a Rickenbacker bass, but Ramona, the girl whose seven evil exes he must defeat, is definitely a feminine Eurystheus.

And that’s the problem with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  All its flash and dazzle can’t hide the fact that Scott and Ramona are jerks.  It’s admirable that Scott’s willing to take on Ramona’s super-powered jilted lovers to win her heart, but it’s hard to believe he’s doing it for any reason other than the rush of beating a great video game.  And Ramona’s hardly on screen enough for us to know why Scott’s willing to go to such great lengths for her.  She’s fickle, from her loves to her hair color.  All of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s charm can’t break through Ramona’s disregard for anyone but herself.  She seems to be playing her own video game, but it’s a slow RPG with her as tragic, lovelorn heroine.

This seems to be the trend for the new hipster romantic comedy genre.  Make Scott Pilgrim less of a visualized video game/graphic novel and more like Amelie meets Enchanted, and you have last year’s hipster smash, (500) Days of Summer.  Like Scott Pilgrim, it was a visual feast, and featured characters who possessed such levels of self-engrossment that by the end, it’s hard to care at all whether either of them ends up happy.  In the climactic battle of Scott Pilgrim, Scott realizes that he doesn’t need love to defeat his enemy, he needs self-respect.  After we’ve spent two interminable hours watching Scott hurt everyone around him because he’s obsessed with himself, the ending feels hollow.  It’s like that girl everyone seems to know who cries that she’s no good and it’s better if guys just stay away from her because she’s so unworthy that she always ends up hurting people she loves, while she clings to the nearest passing nice guy.  Her problem isn’t self-respect, it’s selfishness.

It’s no wonder these films are getting made, and it’s really no wonder they find such huge audiences.  CNN published an article last week about a new book called Almost Christian.  Author Kenda Creasy Dean argues that teens are being offered what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” rather than authentic Christianity—and they are rightly rejecting it.  The great exodus of this generation from the God-as-self-help-guru faith is much more the churches’ faults than the apostates’.  In the same month, the New York Times ran an article about the mystifying trend of prolonged adolescence in twenty-somethings.  My guess would be the secular world has its “moralistic therapeutic deism” equivalent, just without all the “Jesus is my girlfriend” worship songs.  And, if our generation was raised by the generation drooling over Eat Pray Love, the ideological trajectory makes sense.  No wonder hipster characters like Scott’s Ramona Flowers and (500)’s Summer Finn are so angry all the time.

While Scott Pilgrim is a visual feast, it’s the kind that makes you feel full, by making you feel hollow.  It’s no Twilight, thank heavens, and a discerning viewer can enjoy the kitsch without buying into Scott’s delusions.  Wright seems to want us to do just that.

“I tried to make it seem … like an unreliable narrator. In film, I like this idea that [Scott Pilgrim is] the hero of the movie inside his own head. A life of gaming brought him up to be somebody — he’s not selfish, but he’s definitely kind of thoughtless. He’s the hero of his own story, and he’s quite single-minded. In the film, he doesn’t think about the feelings of the characters around him, or the consequences of some of his actions. He sort of views Ramona like she’s a shiny object in a game. I like the fact that the movie is about, to some extent, him getting his comic comeuppance.”

Hopefully, the cumulative effect of these hipster rom coms will be to give this generation a way to move beyond the shallow bonds of self-actualization.  In the meantime, though, at least we get some great soundtracks for our ipods.