Review: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS AND STUFF
Have I ever felt so old watching a movie?
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” does what it does well. It’s hip and irreverent and sometimes funny. It skewers Bollywood, sitcoms and video games. OK, so it’s more of an homage to video games. OK, so it is a video game. Video games allow dweeby guys to compete—and prosper—in rock ‘em, sock ‘em matches that involve levels and “health” and “life,” and “Scott Pilgrim” allows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a dweeby guy in Toronto, to compete and prosper in rock ‘em, sock ‘em battles to the death with the seven evil exes of his new maybe girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Each evil ex is a different level and each level involves more points: 1,000 for taking out the first evil ex, 3,000 for the third, etc. And what happens when he reaches the final level? Epiphany. Of a sort.
The movie starts with all of Scott’s friends giving him shit for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Chinese girl. (He’s 22.) Trouble is, Wong looks about the same age as Cera, and she’s twice as attractive, so it seems a step up. Thankfully, they have her act young so you can see their point. And it leads to this good bit of dialogue with Scott’s sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick)
Stacey: A 17-year old Chinese schoolgirl? You’re serious?
Scott (abashed): It’s a Catholic girls school, too.
How to escape this dilemma? Scott dreams of another girl, Ramona, with dyed pink hair, then sees her the next day. She’s literally the girl of his dreams. The movie keeps doing this. A rock band literally blows the roof off the place, Scott literally gets a life. Is there a point to this or is it just a laugh?
Scott’s pursuit of Ramona is clumsy, as such pursuits often are, but they work, as they often do in the movies. Then the trouble starts.
Scott plays bass for a garage punk band, Sex Bob-Omb, and in the middle of a battle of the bands, the first evil ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), shows up, dressed in bizarre Bollywood crap, and they duke it out in comic-book, aerial, martial arts fashion. That Scott can do this causes no one to blink. Massive battles take place, enemies are literally pulverized, but there are no real consequences for the hero. Nothing is felt, you just get to the next level.
Most of the evil exes feel specific to this generation. We get a lesbian (from when Ramona was bi-curious), silent Japanese twins (male version), a skateboarder-turned-movie star, and a vegan/bassist. These last two are played by actors who have actually played superheroes: Chris Evans (the Human Torch/Captain America), and Brandon Routh (Superman).
The final evil ex, at level 7, is a more universal type: Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a slick record-company exec, who holds some kind of power over Ramona, and who actually defeats and kills Scott. Ah, but there’s that “life” he got at the previous level, which allows him to redo the fight with greater knowledge and understanding. It allows him to fight Gordon not for LOVE (which is apparently weak), but SELF-RESPECT (which is apparently strong).
Is that the great lesson of this generation? Before I saw the film I hoped that once Scott was victorious, as we knew he would be (the film can’t skewer that trope), he would decide that Ramona wasn’t worth it; that once he battled not only the ex-boyfriends but his fears he would be able to move on. The movie beat me to the punch but in a weak way, using a weak word like “self-respect.” Scott can’t move beyond fear because he never really has it. This is a gamer’s universe so there’s no fear because there are no consequences. There’s just embarrassment (with girls) and victory (in simulated battle).
I worked in games—four years at Xbox in the early 2000s—and I’m not much of a fan of that universe, which is without consequences and generally without sympathy. Look at the other characters here. They veer between the shrugging doofus (Comeau, who keeps showing up at parties) and the self-amused instigator (Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, Kieran Culkin channeling Robert Downey, Jr.), without much in-between these two uncaring extremes.
Scott racks up the points. GOOD! COMBO! PERFECT! He wins. He gets the girl. But the victory is without consequences. And the girl remains unknowable.
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