I have a coffee mug without a handle. Granted, it’s difficult to drink anything hot out of it without constantly shifting the cup from hand to hand, or sipping quickly then setting it back down. It’s a warm shade of brown with an intricate mosaic pattern on it, and the interior is a deep aqua. What a thing of beauty! What a pain in the ass to drink from! It never gets offered to guests, and more than a few have wondered aloud why I keep it around. Disappointment over the lost appendage was eventually overshadowed by my fondness for the object as a whole, and I just can’t bring myself to throw it away. The mug still performs its essential functions admirably, and while it’s not perfect, I now have something to say about the thing. A flaw can make a thing precious to some, defective to others — or both simultaneously. And if there’s one thing my generation enjoys, it’s complaining lovingly. We’re drenched in irony, and that means that we’re able to acknowledge that something both sucks and rocks at the exact same time.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World falls into the category of the great, flawed film, and it has excellent company. Scorsese’s Gangs of New York spends hours setting up a brutal landscape peopled by the indelible likes of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, only to have his grudge match with Amsterdam Vallen (Leonardo DiCaprio) fall into anticlimax. Love, Actually may be one of the best romantic comedies ever put to film, but it can’t be ignored that the entire Keira Knightley subplot centers around a man who (though he claims to be “without hope or agenda”) actively attempts to undermine his best friend’s marriage. Michael Haneke’s Cache is thrilling and richly orchestrated, but only if you have the patience of a saint. A fair share of Christopher Nolan’s films fall apart under close scrutiny. These—and many more like them—are the “above average” movies; classics in their own right that have unmistakable, though not unforgivable, blemishes.
Scott Pilgrim, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, has more than its fair share of elements working in its favor. Director Edgar Wright was fresh off his one-two punch of the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead and the meta-cop-actioner Hot Fuzz; Arrested Development’s Michael Cera leads a cast that includes a recent incarnation of Superman (Brandon Routh), the future Captain America (Chris Evans), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, and Tarantino-tested heroine (not to mention possessor of the most dreamy doe eyes in Hollywood) Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The original score was composed by Radiohead super-producer Nigel Godrich, and the soundtrack features new songs from indie-rock royalty and contributions by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Frank Black of The Pixies. Scott Pilgrim boasts energetic and creative fight scenes. It blends comic books, video games, and rock n’ roll seamlessly. It’s a coming of age story, a musical, a romantic comedy, and it features Jason Schwartzman. This movie is fucking cool. So what’s the problem?
Scott Pilgrim (the character) is largely a slacker. His friends talk to him in exclusively acrimonious tones. He plays bass for the mediocre band, Sex Bob-Omb, and at 22 years of age, he’s dating a 17-year-old. His younger sister Stacey, on the other hand, has a job at a coffee shop, is decisive, offers sage advice, maintains close ties with a varied group of friends, and can offer such pithy introductions as “please forgive my brother, he is chronically enfeebled.” When Stacey refers to Scott as her “little brother,” it flips a trope on its ear, upending the well-trodden character definition that age equals wisdom; older siblings must watch out for their younger counterparts. The viewer with insight into the emotional maturity levels of these two characters can fully appreciate that Stacey is the older sister in every aspect save age. Or, y’know, they can smirk because it’s kind of a funny moment.
The quick pacing of this moment is not anomalous, nor is the opportunity for ambivalent audience response. The film takes the seemingly paradoxical stance of embracing up-to-the-minute trends and using them to tell an age-old story of a man fighting to keep the woman he loves. Scott Pilgrim might earn extra lives for vanquishing his enemies in a cloud of coins, but he is essentially caught in a series of duels for the hand of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers.
Sadly, these juxtapositions work both for and against the film. It’s difficult to reconcile such an arcane story in an ultra-modern setting (a setting ironically made ultra-modern by the retro gaming and comic book motifs it employs), and with Wright’s high-energy persona in the director’s chair, the viewer can be carried along by the rushing current, the finer points of story and character becoming a blur. There’s little incentive to pause and reflect on the structure of the film, or the subtleties of character, when the film bulls on relentlessly. It’s like taking a train past a managed forest: At first glance, it’s an indistinct blur of trunks and leaves; nothing remarkable. But if you keep watching, you can see the trees begin to form patterns and rows. The rider of this train might start to wonder about the intent behind planting that many trees in that distinct a pattern, or whether there was a pattern at all – perhaps it was all in their minds? But the train does not slow, and soon the forest is quickly behind. Maybe the rider will return to the forest at some point to study it more carefully. Maybe not. Who’s got the time to invest in such a fleeting moment? Is it worth it?
I once endured a 40 minute lecture on the first two lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York”). The professor waxed poetic on the dual meanings of the “son of York,” and displayed several graphs which broke down syllable distribution and the symbolic flow of enjambment. We talked about the difference between an iamb and a trochee for ten full minutes. As he wrapped up his talk, the roomful of exasperated undergrads clamoured to know exactly what the point of all that had been. He summed it up by saying that analyzing the quotation in that much detail reveals that the major themes of the play had been summed up in just the first two lines. As we groaned and half-heartedly scrawled a few notes, clearly underwhelmed, the professor asked “Isn’t that cool?” He was like a cat, dropping off a half-dead bird on the living room carpet. We preferred the moving, living thing that flowed past – brilliant for a second, gone just as quickly. In dissecting the thing ad infinitum, the professor had seemed to rob it of its essence. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “if you try to take apart a bird to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working bird.”
I’ve come to feel that I was wrong about that lecture. In the years that have passed, I’m more attuned to the idea that if you can analyze a quotation in seemingly endless detail, there must be a good deal of worth to be found. For me, the same holds true for films. I’m a big believer that “not getting” a film is a bogus statement. It usually says more about the viewer than the film itself; users of that phrase frequently can’t seem to articulate why they were confused by (or just didn’t like) a movie, only that they closed themselves off to it at some point.
I recently watched Room 237, which is an inquiry into The Shining and all its complexities and subliminal messages. There’s a fascinating section of the documentary which examines the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel, how windows exist where no windows should be, and lush hotel suites are found within empty walls. I mentioned this to a friend, and he replied “Oh, so they made a mistake when they were making the movie?” NO. Stanley Kubrick, a man with a 200-point IQ, is more than capable of recognizing a simple mistake in a floor plan and correcting it before shooting one of the many, many takes he is famed for. This deliberate “mistake” instead requires some effort—and trust—from the viewer. I trust that I should seek out the deeper truth in Kubrick’s work, rather than write him off as incomprehensible. This doesn’t mean that the analysis is always an enjoyable experience. The fact that a documentary like Room 237 even exists is testament to the levels of obsession to which film geeks can, and have, driven themselves. What’s the point? Where’s the enjoyment? I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Maybe we don’t do these things because we want to, but because we feel compelled to.
Edgar Wright is one of the most energetic, driven, detail-oriented directors working today, and because I have unquestioning faith in his abilities (and his vision of a paradoxical central character driven to obscene levels of self-confidence by the devastation of a broken heart), I’m willing to dive head-first into what may be the shallow end of this pool. Fact of the matter is you can find a lot of stuff in this pool if you look for it.
I’ve written thousands of words and talked to anyone who will listen about the issues with this film, from my preference for the original ending (in which Scott and Ramona—two inherently incompatible characters—don’t end up together), to the unfair treatment of Ramona (why is her deliberately shadowy past constantly being thrust into the spotlight by the men she dates? How about some respect?). I’ve also delved into how important it is to know that the script for the film was finished before the source comic books, thus creating a dilemma for Wright when fans of the books didn’t care for his diversions from the still-unwritten material. I’ve also talked about how basically everything Brandon Routh says or does is a stitch, from declaring smoothly that he “doesn’t know the meaning of the word” when his girlfriend calls him incorrigible (he really doesn’t) to his diatribe on the work schedule of cleaning ladies (she has the weekend off, so she won’t be around to clean up the dust he’s going to pummel you into until Monday), to the hilarious send-up of vegan culture (“Being vegan just makes you better than most people”). The film’s visual effects are clever and in many cases absolutely stunning (and were deservedly nominated for an Oscar). Cinematographer Bill Pope (who famously filmed The Matrix and its sequels, and brings some serious action movie cred to this film) gives beautiful depth to the scenes; I’ve scarcely had such a notion of space in a film that wasn’t in 3D.
This is a film that deserves study, and is also incredibly enjoyable. I feel like an apologist for complex filmmaking when I ask you to give Scott Pilgrim a second watch, but perhaps I shouldn’t. This is a film that was made for people like me. I’ll watch it at least once or twice a year for the rest of my life, discovering additional nuance, angrily protesting the changes made to the original story, devouring the disc of special features. This film is an entire emotional and intellectual experience, which speaks to both its artistic strength and its commercial weakness. I mean, who would want to put their full mental energy into analyzing the cultural subtexts of a movie that was—by all accounts—a flop?
Who would want to drink out of a mug with no handle?