Part video game, part teen romance, part postmodern collage experiment, Edgar Wright’s sui generis adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel is so visually ADD, I was expecting the Universal reps to be handing out Adderall after the screening. Install a camera in a pinball and you won’t approximate the whip-pan visual acrobatics at work here. No surprise then that Wii-playing 18-year-olds can’t get enough of it. Apparently fans of the graphic novel went “neon” with anticipation at this year’s Comic-Con (ground zero of the comic-book world); and judging by the audience’s reaction at the test screening, the film is hardly a letdown.
Freaks will find it hard to argue with Michael Cera as the bass-playing Canadian super–anti-hero, who must ward off his new girlfriend’s seven deadly exes “Nintendo-style.” An impish ninja, full of elfin charm and nerd-chalance, Cera is the perfect fit for O’Malley’s coy hipster stereotype.
Contemplative cinema this is not (duh), but it’s hardly worth picking on the pace and narrative. Let’s face it: it’s not the film that has an attention-span problem, but the new generation. Scott Pilgrim is just one in a string of recent pictures geared toward pixilated youth, which want to conflate the moviegoing experience with the synesthetic dispersion of the video arcade. Not my idea of a good time at the cinema per se; but then again, the inherent non-linearity of this movie may find the new kids getting experimental despite themselves.
Still, it’s not surprising that the visual and aural zingers far outshine the verbal zaps. There is some funny dialogue, but the humor is mostly in the reaction shots and optical calisthenics. Cera’s comic talent is more a matter of form than content, which should have made the job of writing for him easy. But, with a few exceptions, the jokes are dull, even if the cultural riffing is sharp. That being said, when a music-industry–denizen deadly-ex (Jason Schwartzman) apologizes to Pilgrim for offending his “delicate Canadian sensibility,” after hearing his club of choice described as “tacky and pretentious,” I had to agree with them both.
Other bright moments include the film’s Stan Brakhage-on-Meth title sequence, and Alison Pill’s perennially pouting freckle-faced girl drummer. What keeps this adaptation true to the graphic novel is the precise rendering of each character’s clichés. It’s a good cast full of palpable cartooned hip acting. Pill’s drummer is so plastic it’s almost Brechtian—a tableau vivant sans content. As in a comic strip, each personality is reduced to an outline, a pop signifier for the globally plugged-in teen: Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), the studious Chinese high-schooler, or Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), the metrosexual with Vegan superpowers. Nothing is unacceptable as long as it can be made fun of and it fits on your iPhone.
It all comes together when you learn that music producer Nigel Godrich, best know for such seminal records as Radiohead’s OK Computer, worked with Nineties pop icon Beck Hansen to write the film’s songs. Anyone who has followed Beck’s career will find all of his themes present, from the fuzz distortion of Cera’s bass as he sings “I’ll be your garbageman,” to the flotsam-and-jetsam sound design with its cacophony of samples. Like many of Beck’s songs, the film is immune to emotion. Pilgrim is dating the underage Knives at the moment he falls for the hipper Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His fickle affection finds its reflection in Ramona’s constantly changing hair color. “I change the color of my hair like every week, get used to it,” she says.
Scott Pilgrim, artifact of the New Pollution? Get used to it!