Scott Pilgrim vs. Mass Appeal

It was going to be a problem. I knew as I left the theater that there was a fundamental flaw in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A problem I overlooked because the any-and-everywhere ad campaign seemed to override the inherent issue. Scott Pilgrim has no mass appeal.

Kick-Ass hit the same wall earlier this year—pushing a fanboy fantasy on the masses and the masses met it with resounding indifference. To be fair, Kick-Ass has done very well on DVD, so word of mouth will eventually pay off for Scott Pilgrim, but the theatrical box office echoes the message Kick-Ass (perhaps even last year’s Watchmen) started. The public at large is not interested in real-life superheroes. Give them alternate universes like Gotham or fantasy futures like X-Men and the public will eat that shit up, but the “real life” superhero stuff ain’t selling.

By “real life” superhero I don’t mean stuff like Iron Man, which is set in contemporary Los Angeles, but superheroes who have no actual talents or special abilities. While Tony Stark’s super power is his brain and his capacity to build neutron colliders in his basement, he exists in the same universe as Thor and Captain America, who do actually have super powers. Scott Pilgrim, like Kick-Ass, is about a regular Joe who gets sucked into a videogame life. And it doesn’t cross over.

In retrospect, I can clearly see Scott Pilgrim was a really hard sell. You have to contend with the Michael Cera backlash—he’s become ubiquitous and the public at large is tired of his schtick. Scott Pilgrim is based on a graphic novel with a devoted but cult following (granted, sales are skyrocketing around the film). And the story isn’t any one thing. My friend BW pointed out that it isn’t a romantic comedy but it isn’t an action movie, and while it is very funny, it isn’t exactly a comedy, either. Audiences abhor a confused message. And finally, you have the characters themselves. They aren’t exactly likeable. The trailer and ads make Scott seem like the hipstery, loveable loser Cera is famous for playing, but really he’s kind of a prick and maybe a bit of a perv. He cheats on his underage schoolgirl girlfriend and he has his own bitter exes behind him.

And Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Death Proof), the object of Scott’s embattled affections, is a very difficult character to create sympathy for. She’s not emotionally available, utilizing the same deadpan and sarcastic wit as Cera to mask the softer feelings. As an emotionally unavailable female myself, I was fine with this, but I could see fellow theatergoers were not responding to Ramona. Everyone was much more down with Knives (newcomer Ellen Wong), Scott’s high school girlfriend. There was palpable disappointment when Scott chose Ramona over Knives at the end (oops, spoiler). And then there’s the “S” word. The girl sitting in my row said it as we left the theater.

“She was kind of a slut.”

It’s true, Ramona has a past. She has exes—she kept correcting Scott every time he said “ex-boyfriends” by saying “exes” and sure enough Ramona’s bi-curious phase descends on Scott with the fury of a woman scorned—and dated twins (“at the same time?!”) somewhere down the line, too. Ramona does come off as a little, hmm, free. But slutty? That’s harsh. Ramona and Scott are in their twenties and while numbers vary, by your twenties you’ve picked up some history. And that was the point of Scott Pilgrim. Everyone has a past and you can never really get away from it.

It’s a shame Scott Pilgrim is such a hard sell because it’s a damn good movie. Director and co-writer Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is a very talented guy who still has places to go in his career. He has a fresh eye—his movies don’t quite look like anyone else’s. It’s refreshing to go to the theater and see something original and fun. Wright also deserves a round of applause for controlling his huge cast. Cera and Winstead are the anchors, but Kieran Culkin (Paper Man, Igby Goes Down) steals the show as Scott’s roommate and BFF. Lost in the shuffle is Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, The Twilight Saga), who vanishes about halfway through the film despite once again turning nothing into something as Scott’s gossip-queen sister.

But truly, Scott Pilgrim belongs to the bit players. Wong is terrific as hyper Knives and Alison Pill (Pillars of the Earth) and Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation, Funny People) are sharp in small roles. Of the exes, Jason Schwartzman has the best part, but Chris Evans and Brandon Routh are funnier. Routh continues to strike me as too plastic, but that quality was played for effect as the “upgraded” version of Scott. And Evans, though his role amounts to a glorified cameo, was genuinely funny playing a caricature of himself, the B action movie star.

Also deserving massive credit are the film’s editors, Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss. Scott Pilgrim’s many fight scenes were each a masterpiece of editing. If you’ve ever wondered what a live-action videogame fight would look like, Scott Pilgrim is the answer. The film drags a little two-thirds of the way through, but once Scott faces off with uber-ex Gideon it picks right back up and finishes up-tempo.

Scott Pilgrim is not what you expect. It’s not what the marketing made you expect. It’s better than that. Funnier, sweeter, with eye-popping visuals and characters who feel so flawed and real they could be your own brother, sister, or friend. Cera is more enjoyable than I’ve ever seen him before and some of the bit players are a true joy to watch. Culkin alone is worth the price of admission. Scott Pilgrim kind of tanked. Originality took a hit this weekend at the box office. And that’s the real evil.

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5 thoughts on “Scott Pilgrim vs. Mass Appeal

  1. Gabs

    I havent seen it yet but I definitely can understand why it didnt do well. Michael Cera is a huge turnoff. Thats the reason I havent gone. Hes a one trick pony and I know a lot of people that feel the same. A different lead actor would have attracted more. Plus it doesnt seem clear what youre going to see. Ill try to go see it while its still out though and give it a chance. I like my movies to have a point or a meaning, this seems like one of those movies that goes no where. I trust you though so ill give it a chance. I still think Cera will suck but it will be worth it to see anna kendrick for even 1 minute. Love her.

  2. I get that they were going for the cool. different vibe but the trailer felt like it was catering to the ADD crowd. If I watched the trailer for 2 hours I’d actually go insane. There was so much going on that I felt overloaded. Perhaps that’s what they were going for but it’s true it’s hard to get the masses interested in hyper-crazy visuals plus Michael Cera. Despite your review I’m probably going to have to wait for Netflix on this one because frankly I’m too poor and wasted my money on The Other Guys (2 hours of Marky Mark yelling? Fail.)

  3. bellafiga

    I’m actually one of those rare alien hybrids who didn’t find either Shaun of The Dead OR Hot Fuzz very funny. Original, of course but funny? No! I honestly almost got stoned to death for saying such but after rewatching both numerous times I stand by the opinions. But they ARE great films with at the time fresh voices. So I wasn’t expecting much from scott pilgrim(my michael cera lust is borderline illegal). And then I saw it week two with a semi packed house on a random wednesay night and EVERYONE there GOT IT! they totally did. And as is wont during new stunning releases, it actually garnered a round of applause when the closing credits ran. Which to me as a film nerd means more. Critical praise is one thing but as a person who LOVES the theatre experience, seeing it in a non film fest regular way with jane and joe q puplic, it reaffirmed my love for it. Is scott a bit of a dick, yes but not a douch, he’s a guy as all guys are who just don’t want to hurt or me cruel. Is Ramona a slut? That never ever even crossed my mind, to quoute Kevin Smith”bitch tasted life” but i never thought of her as ill intentioned.

    It is a WONDERFUL film in a year(or two) of abject garbage. I think it’s a film that Edgar Wright KNEW wasn’t mass market, but did it anyway. And for that I adore him!

    And I was one of the only few who thought at the end there where it looked like he was ending up with Knives that it was the ONLY disingenous moment of the film, when he went with ramona I got back on board.

    The public at large likes the dugger family(no offense, but clown car cooters are terrifying) and Kate + whomever. So them NOT understanding this film actually makes me feel better. (blantand music , hippseter snobbery) but when the mainstream understands this, it’s time for midget torture porn!

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