'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' rocks Comic-Con
If you listen to the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast (including this week's often-inaudible road trip edition, an experiment we will not be repeating) recently, you've heard Fienberg and I make occasional mention of our love of "Scott Pilgrim," a graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, and now "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," a movie directed by Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz") that comes out on August 13.
O'Malley's final volume came out on Tuesday, and I read it on the plane to Comic-Con, and I saw a Comic-Con screening of the movie last night (after what I hear was a great panel at Hall H), and I have some (as non-spoilery as I can be) thoughts on the book, the movie, and the fantastic experience of the screening itself coming up just as soon as I get my skateboarding proficiency...
For those yet to experience O'Malley's work (or to see ads for the film), the story in a nutshell: Scott Pilgrim (played in the movie by Michael Cera) is in his early 20s, jobless, penniless - he shares a bed with gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), who pays for everything in their tiny apartment - and directionless, other than the time he spends playing bass in the band Sex Bob-Omb with friends Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim (the always-fantastic Alison Pill). He's still getting over a devastating year-old break-up, and has taken to "dating" (if you can define a relationship where you don't even get to the hand-holding stage) a 17-year-old named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) who worships him and the band. And then a purple-haired messenger named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) literally wanders into his dreams and makes Scott want to pursue her - which, in turn, means he has to defeat all seven members of her League of Evil Exes (including Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh and Mae Whitman) in combat if he wants to make things work.
O'Malley's book took some getting used to for me. The first volume is largely a slice-of-life slacker comedy, and then makes a jarring turn into the fight (modeled a bit on anime, and a lot on video games) between Scott and the first evil ex. But once I accepted the heightened reality of it all - that Scott's view of the world was filtered through all the games and movies and songs he consumed - I went with it, and the series became funnier, and more exciting, and more touching as it went along. Scott starts out as an immature, selfish ass, but O'Malley is keenly aware of this and lets the guy grow up bit by bit, just as he acknowledges that Ramona isn't entirely the prize Scott assumes she is - After all, what kind of girl has seven evil exes wandering around? - and the series gets darker and better as it goes along, without losing all the stylistic and comic flourishes that made it work in the earlier installments. The sixth volume, "Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour," very much sticks the landing, providing great closure to this world and these characters. (And because it's only been in stores for a few days, that's all I'll say about that.)
Now, as to "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," directed by Wright and co-written by him and Michael Bacall?
Well, I was a little concerned when I saw the trailer, since it focused almost entirely on the battle scenes, and the book is about so much more. And because the film is condensing six volumes and six battles (two of the exes are twin brothers who fight Scott together) into around 100 minutes, the battles do, in fact, take up a large chunk of the running time, at the expense of some subplots (Scott's job search, Knives' father, the band's creative troubles and pretty much anything to do with Kim, to name a few) that made the reading experience richer.
But that's just how it goes when you're adapting almost any book into a movie. And Wright, Bacall, director of photography Bill Pope, editors Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss and company squeeze as much of the content and style of the comic into the film. The end result is a slightly superficial but rocking, hilarious and sweet action comedy, one that had the screening audience exploding in laughter and applause at regular intervals.
Of course, this kind of screening is a stacked deck: a theater packed with fans of the books, many of whom had just gotten passes from attending the Comic-Con panel, all pumped with adrenaline and love. I have no idea how "Scott Pilgrim" will play to people who haven't read the books, and/or to people who aren't gamers or never had friends in a crappy band (or were never in a crappy band themselves), but I suspect its target audience will adore it. (HitFix's Drew McWeeny called it "an amazing ensemble comedy that works on the emotional level of the most joyous and romantic of the great Hollywood musicals.")
Michael Cera has been accused by many (including Fienberg, who felt the movie worked in spite of him) of being one-note, but I thought he went beyond the usual Cera tics here. Yes, there's obviously a lot of George Michael Bluth and Evan and Paulie Bleeker in there, but there's also a physical confidence that was never there before, so that when the moments come for Scott to turn from spaz to master fighter - or even master bass player - you buy it. He and Winstead worked very well together, and she gives Ramona a depth that O'Malley's pages never quite could.
The supporting cast is filled with talented young actors being used at maybe a 10th of their capacity - in addition to those mentioned above, there's also Anna Kendrick (Scott' sister), Aubrey Plaza (bitchy Julie) and Brie Larson (Scott's own evil ex) - but all make the most of their moments count. Culkin is hilarious as Wallace (and made me want to re-watch "Igby Goes Down" as soon as I'm home from my travels), superhero stars Evans and Routh tremendously self-parodying as two of the more obnoxious evil exes, we know from "Parks and Recreation" how great Plaza is at withering sarcasm, etc.
The real acting find of the movie is Ellen Wong, who is funny and adorable and heartbreaking as poor little Knives. I think the movie's climax (which is the biggest departure from the comics, since both Vol. 6 and movie were being written simultaneously) ultimately does better by her than the books, and I look forward to seeing much more from her.
We know from "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead" - and from his Britcom "Spaced" - that Wright eats, sleeps and breathes pop culture, inhaling moments from his favorite movies, shows and games and then exhaling them as something that feels simultaneously familiar and new, and he brings that sensibility to this film. Most of O'Malley's stylistic flourishes are here - captions identifying the characters and their ages and personalities, or on-screen text in place of sound effects (see the picture) - and Wright stages the action so that it's even more furious and silly and over-the-top.
The soundtrack is pretty kick-ass, too, with Beck writing all of Sex Bob-Omb's songs (and performing on many of them), Metric providing the sound of the evil band The Clash at Demonhead, etc. At the end of the screening, Wright brought the cast (including a mustachioed Schwartzman) on stage to a prolonged standing ovation, then asked the audience if we wanted to hear a little more from Metric. The crowd roared, the cast skipped off, the curtains parted, and Metric was on stage to perform a tight, bone-rattling four-song set. The whole night was so full of energy that it mopped the floor with my jet lag and Comic-Con fatigue.
So hopefully that whets your appetite for the August 13 release. If anyone in the comments has read "Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour," or has also seen the movie in advance, let's be respectful of the greater number that hasn't yet and try to be vague about them, okay?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org