The 40 Year-Old-Critic: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.scott-pilgrim1

See a list of all reviews

On the surface this may look like I’m again revisiting a movie reviewed on Now Playing Podcast. But that’s not the case. This is actually the first time I’m getting to share my views on Edgar Wright’s 2010 romantic comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Looking back, I recall 2010 was a very busy summer for me. I was approaching my 5th anniversary of podcasting with Star Wars Action News, which was, at the time, our most-downloaded show. However, Now Playing was on the rise in the iTunes ranks, and while 2009 saw the show go several weeks without a new episode, by 2010 we were putting out a new show almost every week. We even decided to experiment with fundraising to help cover our costs by doing two shows a week in October: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Retrospective Series on our main feed and the Child’s Play Retrospective Series for those who donated money to the show.

Doing so many podcasts at once was becoming a heavy load for me to carry, and I hit a bit of a breaking point by late summer. Not only were we doing two Now Playing shows per week and Star Wars Action News, but we also were covering San Diego Comic-Con in July (which had us producing an SDCC-exclusive bonus podcast review of I Know Who Killed Me), and the Star Wars Celebration V convention in mid-August. There Marjorie and I, as part of Star Wars Action News, were throwing a party that was to be attended by hundreds of people, hosting several panels on Star Wars Collecting and the Star Wars Radio Dramas, and, of course, trying to put together our reports on the convention.

I felt I needed a break; priorities had to shift. SWAN was Venganza Media’s flagship podcast, so it and Star Wars Celebration V demanded my attention. I needed time off from Now Playing.

Until that point I had been Now Playing’s constant. I was the producer and — for most of the run — editor of the show. The other hosts rotated, but I was always there facilitating the show and making sure it went smoothly. Yet I still made plans, communicating with Brock, Stuart, and Jakob to do the Philip K. Dick Retrospective Series without me. It seemed perfectly timed, as The Adjustment Bureau was coming out in July. The guys would record the shows, and our first editor, Jay, would cut them. I could finally be “hands off.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be on the series; Blade Runner is a long-time favorite that I’ve seen more often than I can count. Total Recall is another favorite. With Minority Report also in the series, I would have liked to be there to express the minority opinion that the film isn’t very good.

Still working the schedule, I could see we needed one more show for August, specifically for the weekend of Star Wars Celebration. I suggested the guys do Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I knew nothing about the movie beyond having seen some trailers, but to me it seemed in line with Now Playing’s usual fare. First, it looked like a film full of comedic action and special effects. Second, it was coming from Edgar Wright, the director of the awesome and quirky Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Third, Jakob was a huge fan of the comic books and hyped for the film.

It seemed all set and ready to go.

Then it all fell apart.

Right after the July 4 weekend Universal Pictures announced it was moving The Adjustment Bureau’s release to February 2011. These Hollywood schedule shifts always cause headaches for us, but none had been worse than this one; most of the Dick series had already been recorded and we had to scramble to get other shows ready and released to fill that gap — not what I wanted to be doing in an already jam-packed July.

Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers. Do they deserve each other?

Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers. Do they deserve each other?

Then came Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I was in Orlando for Celebration when the show was released, which made it the first (and only) time in Now Playing history I was hearing the show as a listener. I had complete faith in the guys to do a great job, but it was odd to be so out of the loop on my own show. Yet I listened, even without having seen the film, and it was a solid episode. Still, it was hard for me to judge — I was too busy to see the movie.

Finally, after returning from Celebration in late August, Marjorie and I made it to the theater to see Scott Pilgrim. It was a chore — the movie had quickly vanished from our local theaters, so we had to drive two hours each way to see it. Yet it was completely worth it. I sat there enraptured as Wright delivered what, to this day, remains his best film.

Part of the thrill came from the fact I didn’t really know what the film was about. The trailers suggested that the characters were living in a video game world, collecting coins and getting 1-Up extra lives. It was quirky, but what was it about? I expected the movie to offer some explanation; perhaps, Tron-like, Scott had fallen into a video game world, or maybe he had an overactive imagination like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

No, it turned out Wright was a confident enough filmmaker to just make a fantasy film in which this was the world. It wasn’t strange to any character that mortal combat would break out in the streets, that two-headed dragons would emerge from speaker systems, or that coins magically appear when people die. All taking place in the magical land of… Canada. It was a vision that Wright completely committed to, and the result is a phenomenally immersive experience. I usually don’t like fantastical scenarios (going to Tolkien’s Middle Earth holds little appeal) but I would love to visit Wright’s Canada.

The editing and music on the film were honestly the best I’d seen in a film that year. Wright’s kinetic montage-style of filmmaking had been a high point of his previous two movies, but here was the first time he seemed totally at ease with his own storytelling ability. It was the same effective, short-hand repetition Darren Aronofsky had used in Requiem for a Dreambut here it was fun and it worked. More, it hit me in a sweet spot: its video game references were all of the late 80s and early 90s 8-bit and 16-bit systems like Super Mario Bros., games I spent thousands of hours playing in my youth.

The film’s saturated color palette, the comic book-style words that filled the frame, the soundtrack and score, every element came together in Scott Pilgrim to create an incredibly fun movie experience.

Scott gets a life.

Scott gets a life.

But there was more to this movie than just a good time — it was also a romantic comedy. The primary plot surrounds Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), his crush on Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and their courtship. In order for them to date, though, Scott had to engage Ramona’s “Seven Evil Exes” in battle.

The trailers told me that was the setup for the film, but the focus had been on the fights and the comedy. I had no idea that the movie would be so deep on the romance.

The film is virtually a love quadrangle: Scott starts the film dating underage Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a girl so infatuated with him that she practically seems like a groupie for Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb. Scott is a very passive character so he can’t bring himself to break up with Knives until he is certain things are going well with Ramona.

Then, in the background, is Sex Bob-omb drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill), Scott’s ex-girlfriend who seems fed-up with her bandmate’s immature relationships.

This wasn’t your standard rom-com where everything is clean-cut and neat — there were messy relationships at work. In this magical land of Canada real emotions and moral dilemmas were being had. Were Scott’s actions right, or was he wrong for dating Ramona while still going with Knives? Did I want to see Scott with Ramona?

Yes, Scott was infatuated with Ramona; she was the princess in the castle and Scott was the video-game hero who had to rescue her. He didn’t just have to court her; he had to fight for her. Literally. Ramona has had seven romances in her life and Scott must defeat each one.

First, this is an awesomely delivered metaphor for any new romantic relationship. When two adults start to date each brings with them the wounds of heartbreak and the baggage of previous boyfriends and girlfriends. New love often is accompanied by hesitation and a degree of paranoia; will this person try to control me like my last girlfriend did? Will he cheat on me like my previous boyfriend?

In real life those “evil exes” are simply previous loves lost, and a new suitor must battle it by earning trust and proving themselves better than those who came before. But that’s the real world; in Wright’s fantasy-land of Canada these evil exes have to be fought Mortal Kombat-style… to the death. It’s a storytelling conceit that is fun but also drives home that Ramona carries some serious baggage.

Scott arms himself for battle.

Scott arms himself for battle.

Wright has perfect casting in the film, with Cera a particular highlight. I first encountered the actor in Superbad and then caught up on his breakthrough television role of George Michael Bluth on Arrested Development. He carries with him a shy niceness that makes him seem sweet even when making bad decisions. More, he’s thin and wiry, and doesn’t look well-equipped to engage anyone in combat. When Matthew Patel, the first evil ex, appears, it’s easy to think Scott’s ass will be handily kicked.

Yet this is Canada, normal rules of fighting don’t apply. Scott pulls out fighting moves that astound Patel and the audience. While Patel and Scott fight in hand-to-hand combat, no two battles follow the same video game convention. From Rock Band to Tony Hawk Pro Skater, each fight has its own video game analog.

But as Scott battled I started to wonder if he and Ramona really should be together. Ramona was non-committal; she couldn’t even go a few days without changing her hair color, let alone her boyfriend. Even as Scott battles ex after ex, Ramona is not forthcoming about her past — Scott’s every day is a surprise of what’s coming next. More, as each ex arrives Ramona finally reveals to Scott her relationship with that person, and how she broke up with them. It turns out Ramona was always the one to initiate the break-up, she’d never been dumped.

Scott was fighting for Ramona, but I wondered if Ramona would fight equally for Scott. Winstead’s performance is wonderfully reserved, giving me that hesitation. We know Knives would, and does, fight for Scott’s love, but is Ramona the one Scott should end up with? Or will she dump him as she has all seven of her exes?

More, it turned out Scott himself had a history, having been dumped by Natalie “Envy” Adams (Brie Larson) when she became famous with her band The Clash at Demonhead. Scott is as evasive about Envy as Ramona is about any of her exes.

For a movie that was sold as an 8-bit video game fight, I was just as enthralled with the emotional resonance and depth of characterization occurring on-screen.

A fake poster created for the film, featuring Chris Evans' action hero character.

A fake poster created for the film, featuring Chris Evans’ action hero character.

The actors, from large roles to small, also delivered great performances. Kieran Culkin almost stole the film as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace Wells. Every scene with Culkin is full of quotable dialogue and unexpected humor. Minor roles in the film are stocked with familiar faces, including Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman as seventh evil ex Gideon Gordon Graves, Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) as a psychic vegan Scott must fight, and Captain America Chris Evans as a skateboarding action movie star. The latter two had both done superhero films I disliked (Routh in Superman, Evans in Fantastic Four), but their performances here won me over and I left the film actually liking both of them. Plus cameos by Thomas Jane (The Punisher) and others always had me going, “I can’t believe he’s in this film too!”

I don’t wish to sound trite, but everyone in this movie was perfect — and that’s a term I don’t use lightly.

That this film didn’t find its audience at the box-office was disappointing. This was a movie I thought everyone should see, and most would enjoy. It had come out of nowhere and became my favorite film of 2010 (with Kick-Ass a very close second).

More, though, I was heartbroken. This was such a great movie and I couldn’t talk about it. That spot on the show had been given up, through my own action. I had said, “You guys go ahead, take this one without me.” Now I can never spend two hours debating the various romantic entanglements, and relishing in the great performances delivered in Scott Pilgrim. Despite putting more than 2,000 words of praise into this article, it will never be as widely disseminated a review as the one you’ll hear on Now Playing Podcast.

I have very few regrets in my podcasting history. Not being on the panel reviewing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the biggest.

That day I made a vow — I wouldn’t make that mistake again. After Scott Pilgrim there would never again be a Now Playing review I did not co-host. Barring massive illness or injury, I will remain Now Playing’s constant. It is in my blood to discuss film. I love the conversations, even if I don’t always love the film.

Another host approached me when Jakob, Stuart, and I were doing our Steven Spielberg donation retrospective series covering Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and War of the Worlds, asking for a turn on the panel. His argument was, “You don’t even like Close Encounters,” so why would I want to be on the review. The answer was pure and simple — I wanted to be there to say why I didn’t like Close Encounters. I wanted to have that debate with two fans of the film. It’s not just about the movie; it’s about the analysis, the debate, and the conversation. There’s no fun if everyone agrees on everything, having a minority opinion is vital to good debate.

I will always regret not being able to be on a podcast review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I came out of that knowing how important Now Playing truly is to me. And that is a happy ending.

Tomorrow — 2010!

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec

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