Scott Pilgrim’s Progress: The Shared Frenzy of Nerds and Our Tormentors

Posted by Nick Curley

By now you may have heard that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was maybe, kinda, possibly supposed to have made more money in its first two weeks than it did. It cost over sixty million dollars to release and thus far has paid out just over one-third of that figure. It’s expected to make up the difference and then some by the end of its theatrical run. The film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel (which is a book for moments where you’re short on time or have misplaced your glasses) didn’t wrangle the domestic cheddar of Julia Roberts LARPing Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, or of Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, which Jesse Finnegan of the L Magazine awesomely dubbed “The Distilled Nectar of Some Cosmic Uber-Testicle”. To haters, this dinero shortage is a referendum on Pilgrim’s creators, and probably Obama as well, ’cause he’s always getting tangentially boned these days.

Consider what director Robert Rodriguez attributed to The Expendables semi-surprising success. “They bring back action from the 1980s — where you know who the good guys are, and you know who the bad guys are,” Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times. “For young audiences, they resemble what they are playing at home with their video games.” Rodriguez puts forth a harrowing possibility: that plebes like action movies with XBox-level body counts more than they like Pilgrims: humorous commentaries on action movies and video games. In other words, that which analyzes or sweetly skewers is not always as crowd-pleasing as that which participates-without-introspection. The Expendables plows and demolishes its way to rolling credits: no meditations on genre or culture enters its bazooka crosshairs.

These types of conflict in styles are often oversimplified into a War on Ironic Detachment. Yet nothing about Pilgrim is detached: its self-awareness never slows it down or drains its gusto. It is not a dead-eyed satire or smug parody, but a loving, enthusiastic tribute to the buzzing bells and whistles of punk rock, Nintendo, action movies, and comic books’ BANG-ZOOM aesthetic. Yet cynics, the Internet’s great export, rally against the film and star Michael Cera, held as some eternal man-child suckling the teat of our patience dry. Many dislike Cera’s films preemptively, dismissing him as a one-trick pony not because of his work, but more pathetically because of what he looks like: someone they didn’t like in college, or who bumped into them on the subway, or who may have a trust fund. I find this approach baffling, and refer you to Linda Holmes’ sharp critique of the web’s “unfortunate tendency to review the audience”.

Meanwhile, I found this version of Cera to be pretty nuanced: new and improved, even. In Pilgrim he’s refreshingly the butt of the joke more often than not, more willing than ever to play the fool rather than the fool’s clever buddy. As Scott he’s a little daft, a little selfish, and an often reluctant coward in combat and romance alike. Throughout he remains endearing and often hilarious, like some warbling, post-adolescent version of Homer Simpson ambling through Toronto. Even if you’re tired of Cera, I’d urge you to give him one more roll in the hay. He anchors the film’s raucous, unwieldy synthesis of styles: it’s his humane, crooked self-doubt that keeps the whole enchilada from descending into pop cultural masturbation. Those suggesting that Pilgrim’s box office proves Cera lacks the star appeal to “open” a big movie aren’t giving him proper daps.

Blame for a lack of chiming registers would more fairly fall upon Universal Pictures, which failed to present the movie as anything special, let alone a unique experience that appeals to Avatar stoners, explosion-boner meatheads, and sensitive metaphysics TAs alike. Perhaps the most talked-about analysis of Pilgrim’s box office came from a public relations shame pit called The Wrap, which engaged in the kind of narrow-minded excuses that make marketing into a sham industry. Each cop-out on The Wrap’s laundry list can fairly be characterized as bullshit. Studio sales teams, in an effort to justify their existences, do everything in their power to latch onto speculative ideas of who might want their product. Everything in their power, that is, except step out of the way and simply show us what their movie looks like, what it sounds like, and where its spirit lies. These ad wizards have spent so long honing the deceptive hokum used to peddle bad movies that they’re unwilling to let good movies speak for themselves. But to solely make villains of these distributors is not enough. As John Lopez astutely notes at Vanity Fair, if you want fresh, original movies like this one to be produced, you have to vote with your dollar and buy a Pilgrim ticket before downloading it.

Much has been made about a presumed division of response between older and younger viewers. It’s a movie about broke, unemployed urbanites in their twenties. The people predisposed to seeing it are likely either young people who resemble the characters, or the moms of said young people, searching in their mom way for some explanation of why their kids don’t have jobs and dress the way that they do. I wondered watching it if the film might fail to appeal to aged folk who, unlike me, didn’t grow up in the busy techno-calamity that Scott Pilgrim inhabits. But then, from downtown comes A.O. Scott’s slam dunk opening to his New York Times review:

There are some movies about youth that just make you feel old, even if you aren’t. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” based on a series of sprightly graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, has the opposite effect. Its speedy, funny, happy-sad spirit is so infectious that the movie makes you feel at home in its world even if the landscape is, at first glance, unfamiliar.

I can picture Scott the Critic growing up lovelorn and spastic, and relating to Scott the Cera all the more because of it. But it is appealing to hear someone from the (relatively) old guard relish the picture’s breakneck pace and recognize how much of the humor is born from that rhythm. So much of what works within it stems from quick wordplay, visualization of language, or the “hypertext” referencing of our cultural mile markers: those shared moments in art which articulate a Collective Unconscious, or at least a Collective TiVo. To dub this a “video game movie” alone is no more accurate than calling Mortal Kombat a morality play set in feudal Japan.

The film’s highlights come not from its laser beam gorillas, cartoon interludes, and wall-smashing Vegan Police (though all of these gimmicks succeed big-time), but from an experimental approach to linguistics. Its best scenes are some of its earliest, when we’re introduced to funny kids in a rut pulling each other up and down with verbosity and clever jabs (pre-”clever” clever, now that clever’s a four-letter word). These Act One sequences present some of the best bon mots found on film in ages, as scenes segue in and out with emboldened headlines, and pop-up boxes offer rundowns of newly entering characters’ status and ambitions. The bass drum used in Scott’s raucous band Sex Bob-Omb (their songs, written by Beck Hansen, are his best in years) is emblazoned with white text on a black head that reads, with brilliant comic dumbness: DRUM. It’s better than it sounds, for this is the kind of visual ballyhoo predicated on, among other things, a particularly good typeface.

Well, that is to say: a typeface and timing. Kudos to Wright and the film’s editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss for splicing these jokes to such great effect. Amos and Machliss are alum from Wright’s BBC cult classic Spaced, and the equally well woven Brit comedies Look Around You and Peep Show, all of them shows whose buffoonery ran like a Swiss watch. As we’re learning all over again in the twenty-first century, comedy on film is so often derived from when a shot begins and ends, or where the camera moves in moments of punchline revelation. For all this talk of Pilgrim’s roller derby soundtrack and neon décor, and for all the humdrum about how nothing here could appeal to anyone over forty, the soul of Scott Pilgrim turns out to be well written zingers, sight gags for the literate viewer, and a heap of silly faces. To paraphrase a line from that divisive young sourpuss of yesteryear, Ozzy Osbourne: it’s not too loud, and you aren’t too old.