RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 28: Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)


Pilgrim


The Players…

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kednrick and Aubrey Plaza.


The Story…

When the literal girl of his dreams Ramona starts popping up in his life-on-hold, slacker musician Scott Pilgrim wakes up. But to win the love of this rollerblading goddess, Scott must vanquish all seven of her evil exes in martial arts battles. You read that right. Bonus round!


The Rant…

I’ve covered a few comic book-based movies here at RIORI. To note, we’ve seen Green Lantern, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Superman (twice) and the Spirit (once and only once. Ugh) raked over the coals by the Hollywood combine, most of them with confused results. My responses have been generally positive than not on my watch, by the way. I try to separate my bias from…some other bias. To save time and spittle (and I’m slowly learning my readers can sometimes tire of the spray), most of the middling comic book adaptations I’ve seen under The Standard have been palatable, at times even enjoyable. But I think not all comic books deserve the dubious honor of making it to celluloid, or whatever they use these days.

Set the way-back machine, yet again, for the not too distant past. Oh, quit groaning. You made the hit here, didn’t you? This one’s gonna a get a bit more personal than before, and admittedly has very little to do with the context of this week’s movie. Why and what for? Well, sometimes you gotta just blog when you have a blog. Didn’t you learn anything from the Control installment?

2005. Between reality and semi-sobriety, a decade ago I decided to find a job. The inheritance that I had plopped into my lap was fast wasted on booze, pills, ennui and a grad school degree. Well, almost on that one. The only clear-headed thing I did with that wad of cash. I burned away my prospects and not a few bridges. Addictions are like that. You trade turns in the road only as often as you find the freakin’ road. So I was broke, strung out and stuck terminally in my late-20’s living under the ‘rent’s roof to get on the mend with my feet touching the pavement. Some pavement, anyway.

The job part comes in later. Remember my screed attached to the prior installment? Fire, walk with me; it’s a stinkin’ blog.

There was one addiction I used to have that remained dormant for a long time, however. And believe me, it did far less damage than the aforementioned blurs. Bless childhood.

*rewind*

Since middle school comic books were one of my balms against the cruel realities tweendom. I got hip to the funnies in summer camp, back when the sensible price for a new Marvel ish was a respectable 60 cents. This was the 80s. Yes, Millenials, I am old. So’s yer f*ckin’ iPhone 5s. The camp had a “system”; the parents doled out some discretionary spending that yeilded coupons for various items at the camp “store.” On sale was candy, cheap toys like balsa wood gliders and kites and, of course, comic books. The decent 60 cent kind. I wrapped my imagination around the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and—back in ‘85—issues from Marvel’s “New Universe.” For the uniformed, the New Universe was a line of then-new Marvel titles with brand new characters and storylines not drawn from their classic canon. It was launched in honor of Marvel’s silver anniversary. These titles, although new, were kinda derivative, stale and on the whole sucked. But as brand new stuff for a brand new collector such as myself, it was pretty cool overall. Anyway, the line tanked before the year was out, and it more or less caused then Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to resign his position in frustration and shame. Them’s the breaks.

Fast forward many years, up until high school. I quit collecting comics upon graduating middle school. Why? Not for a very good reason; comics were for kids. I was in high school now, a big boy. I got rid of almost all my books and delved instead into regular books, music, writing and pursuing the opposite sex with complete futility. You know, you mature. Or rather you just get older, and not necessarily wiser.

(By the by, according to the history books, the ‘90s were a terrible time for comic books. Sh*tty stories, bad artwork, prices skyrocketing and the ol’ House of Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I didn’t miss out on much during the ‘90s. Call it blind luck.)

Jump ahead again a decade or so. A college graduate. Time for the real world, which I avoided completely for most of the ‘00s as the abovementioned confessional explained. I gave up on most of my existence, mostly living for my Friday nights (and Saturday’s, and Sunday’s, and…), generally hand-to-mouthing it the rest of the week. I had a hard time holding down a job, and lived a Bukowskian existence for a few seasons. While I was trying to my head together, I reflected on “what went wrong” and backtracked, trying to assess the damage. I won’t go into great detail here, other than I tried to relive my past. That and I began collecting comic books again. It was a hesitant step, mind you. I heard about the abortive ‘90s and tentatively perused what had came before. Ugh. I got turned onto manga instead, and eventually weaned my way up back to America again. The turn of the century, after some housecleaning, brought about a Renaissance to the comic industry. That and prices, although higher, had stabilized. Again, I lucked out.

Between moping and scraping together what little cash I could, I began to frequent, or rather re-frequent the local comic shop of my youth. The owner, Jeff—who still holds court in the place for over twenty-five years. Quite an accomplishment for an independent comic book store, or any indie bookstore for that matter—was a sometimes acerbic, always opinionated but overall friendly dude who was also, of course, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the art form and history of the medium. To say his store had a lot of books is akin to saying the Antarctic is a tad chilly. Thanks to his hospitality and salesmanship, he re-activated the dormant comic-collecting addict I had once been in my callow youth. This was a major turning point for me, whether I knew it or not, and I slowly began to get my sh*t together.

Instead of carousing at my local watering hole, I hung out with Jeff and our fellow comic patrons (he kept late business hours) of all stripes. Young and old, male and female, black and white; it was a real crazy quilt of folks that would either shop and/or just chill there. I’d do some shopping, argue the merits of this book or that with Jeff and crew, or just simply hang and shoot the sh*t. I began to heal, although I didn’t know it at the time.

One day, I was doing that week’s shopping when Jeff extended either a hand of goodwill (he knew of my troubles, financial and otherwise) out of either being the charitable sort or knowing I was fast becoming one of his best, most reliable customers. Maybe both. In any event, he asked me about my work prospects. He must’ve known I was down on my luck by my constant yapping yap. Job opps? I said I had a few—meaning zero—irons in the fire, and then he made his pitch. He needed a guy to mind his store nights, from 5 till close 6 nights a week. He wanted someone he knew, perhaps trust and definitely not a snot-nosed kid who’d only rifle through the “adult books.” It didn’t pay much, but he would throw in an “employee discount” for me as a bonus. So whaddya say?

Of course I took it. Yes, the gig did indeed pay peanuts (and most of those peanuts were fed back into the elephant), but it got me out of the house—and bar—with a semi-productive routine. I managed the register. I recommended books in a salesman-like way, not some frothing fiend fresh outta momma’s basement. I was at in-stores, charitably promoting the local and not-so-local talents. I was also witness to the sad spectacle of life-arrests actually getting into fistfights over arguments regarding who could beat whom: Thor vs. Superman. On more than one occasion, I had to physically, but politely escort such ruffians out the door, reminding them to not carelessly chip a tooth on the concrete (sh*t like this really happened, Kevin Smith plot or no). As for promotion, the then EIC of Marvel Joe Quesada did a Q&A via conference call at the store, candidly fielding all of our geekish questions about what Spider-Man was gonna do next month. And the next. And the next. And the you get it. Joe suffered our silly inquiries handily and with much humor. I figured he was an old hand. After dealing each Wednesday with the usual rabble-rousers, I could only imagine what ol’ Joe has to do weekly with shareholders. It was all in good fun, and I wished I had only found a gig like this sooner.

At the end of the day, and I can’t repeat this enough, my time immersed in the comic book world as I had never done before in my youth became a lifejacket in a drowned world of my doing. Am I clean? Hell’s no. I tipple every time I watch a movie for this abortion. I smoke a lot too. Occasionally I’m solicited by co-workers with wondrous tales of the rapture that coke and weed may provide. Whatever. In this day and age, I find it takes a strong soul to say just that. I mean, look who we have to vote for. Still, my current vices possess the aegis of legality on its side. I’ll remain there for the time being. So long as the current Marvel/Disney hydra fails to notice its eighth head (you figure that one out, with your iPhone 6 Plus, bright boy).

Now. What I’m finally getting to here, is like the classic Cobsy line: I told you that story to tell you this story. While I was in “rehab,” immersing myself and getting caught up on the adversities of my favorite superheroes had triumphed over during my collecting absence, I came upon a format of comic book that I only had a passing understanding of: the graphic novel. I knew that publishers would often compile a story arc of a particular title—say, the Avengers—into an omnibus edition; it was simply collecting several back issues into one comprehensive whole, like a trade paperback. During my manga years, I only collected comics in this format (I initially thought all manga was published in this way). I wasn’t aware of stand-alone graphic novels of a single story and artwork carried across a self-contained package until my time at the comic store.

The first example of a “true” graphic novel came in the form of Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. It documented Pekar’s experiences getting his long-running, cinema verite series American Splendor made into a movie. Pekar has sort of become the archetype for this style of comic book storytelling. I’ve read other novels of his, like the bio of his friend in Michael Malice: Ego and Hubris and his urban historical, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland—a complete account of his beloved hometown—the backdrop to his Splendor series. I dug into other novels: Alison’s Bechel’s autobiography, Fun Home, about growing up gay set against the backdrop of her family’s business, a funeral home as well as an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and other novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others. These comics had little to do with superheroics, more to do with drama and humor. If conventional comic books were USA Today, graphic novels were the New York Times.

More like premium cable, actually. If you wanted to watch Homeland, Shameless or The Affair, you’d have to plunk down some extra cash. Like these cable series, graphic novels offered up a bit more freedom to explore more mature content than you average ish of Spider-Man (and like HBO, the prices were higher). Some stories were dramatic, others scary, some humorous. On the humorous side, and also attempting ironic commentary on folks from my generation, was this little collection called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Here, before I run on any longer, I’ll simply jump to the synopsis and get on with the meat grinding:

Once upon a time in Toronto…


Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the archetypal 22-year old slacker. No real job. No real prospects of any merit. Living in his dingy flat shared by his pompous, gay roomie Wallace (Culkin). Endlessly the bane of his younger sister’s (Kendrick) existence. Adrift, and he likes it that way.

Scott’s got nothing better to do with his days except endlessly pluck bass with his going nowhere garage band (the knowingly named Sex Bob-Omb) losers Stephen Stills, Young Neil and grumpy Kim (Simmons, Webber and Pill, respectfully). Oh, and on the side, date some 17-year old girl from a catholic school, the fetching Knives Chau (Wong). Right. Scott has a sh*tty track record for dating. His list is short and sweet and hopefully won’t get any longer wooing this recipe for a crime.

Then one fateful night, it comes to him in a dream. Really. A dream. The true “girl of his dreams,” whom at first could only be a figment of Scott’s staid imagination trying to break free. So when at a party, Scott and his amigos hear about a local battle of the bands—networking! This could be the way to Sex Bob-Omb’s big break!—there she is…

Her name is Ramona Flowers (Winstead), an ex-pat from New York City trying to settle down and find some stability in the Great White North. With her punky garb, snarky ‘tude and locks of many colors, Scott is transfixed. If not by her presence, then by the fact she has a presence outside his mind. Hey, all men are great in the their dreams, right? Scott pleads to the fates that this is true.

Ramona is somewhat taken with Scott’s geeky charm, but is reluctant to commit to any kind of relationship just yet. Not unlike Scott, she’s had some bad turns in the road on the dating scene. In fact, she’s had seven. Seven really whacked-out relationships that more or less scared her off to Canada. Scott thinks out loud: How bad could they have really been?

Well…

At the fated battle of the bands, Scott gets a taste (one of seven) of what Ramona warned him about. In a less than straight line, Scott faces off with one of Ramona’s exes, who apparently followed her flight up north. To win her, Scott must defeat him, Mortal Kombat style. Wait. This poof with the Lina Yamazaki hairstyle and his raiding of Prince’s wardrobe, this guy dated Ramona? And what about the psychic vegan bass player (Routh)? Or the witless, square-jawed action hero actor (Evans)? Or the Goth girl…girl? Or the twins!?!

Yikes. It’s like one of those video games Scott never plays, but (dum-dum-dum) it’s for real. How the heck is he gonna get past this rogue’s gallery of jealous freaks and win Ramona’s heart? Wit? Grit? Basslines?

And what’s Knives gonna think…?


It’s movies like this that make me question whether I was the target audience or not. The endless video game references, indie music soundtrack, alt-scene caricatures and the like seem to be aimed at me. Seem. However while watching Pilgrim, I got the creeping, crawling sensation that I had (shudder) grown beyond these hooks.

No, I’m not. All of it was just poorly executed.

Let me get one thing clear right now: I’ve never actually read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was aware of it. It slouched on the shelves at my former place of employ, but I never picked it up. After watching the film version, I kinda wished I had. Along with that sneaking suspicion that the raison d’être for Pilgrim on film was slipping past me, I also felt that taking the story out of its original context was doing me no favors. And the film was lousy with bleeps and bloops that winkingly told the audience that, hey, this was originally a comic book!

I mean—ahem—graphic novel.

I understand that for over a decade comic book movie adaptations have been en vogue, but not all books really need an adaptation. Admittedly, Pilgrim had an interesting way of “adopting” the comic book format for a movie. A lot of the gimmicks of the trade (sadly mostly clichéd concepts) were employed on screen. Sound effects—a la the 60’s Batman TV show—action lines, dialogue balloons, asides to the audience and ridiculous scenes of fight scenes lifted from hyperactive video games like Mortal Kombat, Looney Tunes chase scenes and/or supernatural portals into otherworldly, kaleidoscopic world via Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, all were employed to keep you in on the joke. Unfortunately, the joke’s not that funny.

Even the editing is comics panel-like. Scene to scene, things just swoop in and out of view like some slideshow with a corrupted file. I guess this was to come across as surreal—and believe me, Pilgrim has surrealism in spades—but it also was exhausting. The pace is so frenetic that if you felt you missed something, you probably did. Trying to make sense of what you see here makes no sense.

And despite the breakneck dynamics, Pilgrim feels boring. I say feels, not is. Yes, the plot is a well-trodden road, yet the overall vibe of the movie tries to have some verve. But this movie drags. At an almost two hour running time, Pilgrim is something of a slog. It feels like all of this sh*t could’ve been wrapped up on a nice, neat 75 minutes. It doesn’t; Pilgrim goes on and on and on. I blame the stale script and the tired storyline. This movie looks like it’s not supposed to be boring, but it sure as hell feels that way. Plus it has a corny, after-school special kind of ending. Did that ruin it for you? No, it didn’t.

Other than the threadbare plot, Pilgrim is a movie about the dynamics of being dumped. In the long run, you learn from it. But the short run runs so quick that, even for maybe a few months, it feels eternal. It’s ultimately harmless and a fact of life. Under normal circumstances, tempered with a reality that excludes the dumped, a breakup seems world ending over a span of some very long days. We’ve all been there, and many of us may be there again in the future. Like I said: fact o’ life. If that’s the message of Pilgrim, it seems a little high-minded. Okay, I said it, but I think I was trying to put something into the film that wasn’t there in the first place. Most of it seemed like a lot of Gen X audience bating, but I never read the graphic novel, so what do I know?

Is Pilgrim Gen X nostalgia? I’m not sure. There are those tiring video game in-jokes, and the music is the post ur-grunge that saturated the marketplace circa 1995. But the series was launched in 2004, and I think that might be too soon to wax poetic about ago in this case. Overall, Pilgrim really reads like Looney Tunes meets Dazed and Confused. Is this supposed to be a comedy? Because it’s not terribly funny. Sometimes the snappy dialogue is engaging. When forced, not so much. And the hell of it is that director Wright is a vet of the alt-comedy standup circuit in LA. I figured here he was trying to apply his craft on film. Actually weld is a better term; welding shows its seams.

Pilgrim is trying too hard to be “hip.” But it’s catering to the wrong crowd. Seriously. Gen X virtually invented cynicism towards pop culture while simultaneously embracing it. If the producers of Pilgrim was aiming to make it a tongue-in-cheek lambast of everything “cool” in 90’s alterna-culture, then they should of took a step back and rethink their drink (Christ, even writing that sounds hopelessly 90s. I suck). I cringed a lot here.

One final carp (you’re welcome): Pilgrim is suffering from a bad case of The Matrices here, and not in just overt terms. Never has CGI been used so wastefully. It’s an extension of the forced hip pretenses of the movie. I know that nowadays you couldn’t execute the same kind of video game F/X here without digital aid (most moviemakers simply don’t want to), but it sure gets numbing. Made to make Pilgrim more comic book-y? I dunno. Maybe it was like that in the book. I’m still at a loss there.

Universal’s jump on the comic book cum movie bandwagon falls short here. Then again, I might be completely wrong in my opinions. All the other movies based on comic books I’ve taken apart here at RIORI I was a least familiar—even in passing—with the source material. When one goes to see a movie based on pre-existing media, comic book or otherwise, part of the enjoyment of the film stems from what the director lifted and (hopefully) got right from the book. I didn’t have that here, and it was entirely my fault.

Then again, a good movie—adaptation or no—should lend itself to some enjoyment at least. That was sorely lacking here in Scott Pilgrim’s world. The whole thing was a grind.

A grind. Y’know. Like in video games? That’s hip.


The Verdict…

Rent or relent it? Relent it. It’s stupid. If this is Universal’s hope of tossing its erstwhile notion of hip into the ring of the lucrative comic-as-movie trend, then they have dysplasia.


Stray Observations…

  • Seinfeld reference! Definitely Gen X nostalgia.
  • “Pirates are in this season!”
  • I have an affinity for Rickenbacker basses. Must be my early-Rush fanitude speaking.
  • Evans is really enjoying his role here. You can tell. He also has great facial hair.
  • It appears that the rabble who blinded and willfully go to the multiplex have little to no concept of dues ex machina It gets shamelessly employed here in Pilgrim World a lot. Good work, advertizers! (That’s not a typo.)
  • I tried veganism for a few years. Lost some weight, which, in fact, I needed to (lost some muscle mass, too, though). My blood pressure improved, as well as my endurance. A poorly maintained vegan diet however, as mine was (I then knew nothing of quinoa) is a highway towards anemia. Been there. On the whole, and not out of hipster dynamism, one should experience once in a while a diet sans animal products. You’ll feel quite clean and refreshed. And after a few months sanity will set in and you’ll be queuing up at Mickey D’s for the semi-annual relaunch of the McRib wearing nothing a lobster bib. Really, try quinoa.
  • “Kick her in the balls!”
  • Was that Thomas Jane? Awesome! “No vegan powers!”
  • DRUM. Heh.
  • Pill is the best actor here, deliberate or not. As the eye of this hurricane, her flat affect works wonders.
  • “What are you doing?” “Getting a life.”
  • Up up down down left right left right A B (select) start.

Next Installment…

John Cusack quits sleepwalking through movie roles long enough to rejoin the Adult World, if only for one film.


 

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