Thursday, December 30, 2010

Game Over (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Micmacs)

"Watch the movie ten minutes at a time, and you might think it's a masterpiece," wrote Pauline Kael about Terry Gilliam's Brazil. "That's the problem, though - it's the same ten minutes." I think more highly of Gilliam's signature film than Kael did. But her words couldn't be more appropriate for two of 2010's most elaborate fantasias -
Scott Pilgrim vs the World and
Micmacs. Both so ambitious, so visually dazzling, so deeply, deeply tedious.

Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright's follow-up to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead (two of my favorite comedies of the Aughts), would be the British director's first foray on (North) American soil if the film weren't residing entirely in ComicBookLand. (Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley.) There has been an endless supply of "comic book movies" over the years but Scott Pilgrim is a true original: a movie that conveys the look and feel of a comic book more seamlessly than Ang Lee's Hulk from a few years back. Frames break into "panels," action is repeatedly freeze-framed, sounds are visualized. ComicBookLand also shares territory with VideoGameVille, as we watch the title character do battle with his new girlfriend's "Seven Deadly Exes," gaining new "powers" and advancing to higher "levels" following each "round."

That's a lot of quotation marks for one paragraph, and it's a large part of the problem I had with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Wright creates a universe teeming with visual invention, always giving you something to look at. Its version of Toronto is composed entirely of artifice, and Wright, one of our most humanistic filmmakers, tries his damndest to give the movie heart. (Indeed, when two characters kiss, tiny hearts literally float across the screen.) Yet the film suffers from irony overload, not least of which due to its two leads. Michael Cera has eked out an inexplicable career from playing nerdy studs really into hip music and accepting of homosexual lifestyles while chasing the girl of his dreams; it's a good thing Wright fills the frame with delightful corner details, because Cera's Scott Pilgrim is a cipher at the center, bringing nothing to the party. (Jesse Eisenberg's star turn in The Social Network should finally lay to rest which of these two role-competing actors is going places.) As Ramona Flowers, the girl he fights for, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's perpetual deadpan is so thuddingly devoid of feeling she could be texting her lines rather than delivering them.

The supporting players fare better -- especially Alison Pill as the pint-sized, romantically spurned drummer for Scott's band. (Pill, so astonishing on season 2 of In Treatment, adds devastating comic timing to her repertoire here. She'd have made a better Ramona.) And most of the villain-players (Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman) give spirited performances. Passages of Scott Pilgrim are so exhilarating that it's odd how the movie as a whole left me feeling like an exhausted observer rather than an energized investor in the action. (Granted, an individual who gave up reading comic books in his pre-teens and gaming a few years later may not be the most reliable authority on a movie like this.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World mounts the strongest challenge yet to Roger Ebert's assertion that "video games can never be art," yet ultimately it's a film in need of a joystick.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, why are you so hard to like? Your movies (City of Lost Children, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) are ravishing to look at. You fearlessly employ CGI within a classical filmmaking style. You have a knack for visual slapstick. You create worlds (even familiar ones such as Paris) that are like no other onscreen. Yet, Christ, you're annoying; and Micmacs is your most irritating concoction yet, a satire of the arms industry that packs all the wallop of Charlie Chaplin forgoing his parody of Hitler in favor of a lesser-ranking figure (The Great Untersturmfuhrer). It's also as maudlin as Chaplin at his worst.

Amelie should have taught Jeunet a lesson about the need for a strong lead character, yet Micmacs stars a void named Dany Boon as Bazil, a clerk at a video store who loses his job after being accidentally shot in the head. He survives, tracks down a pair of weapons manufacturers responsible for the bullet that maimed him, and enlists a ragtag band of junkyard dealers to wreak revenge on the CEOs. What follows is an extended variation on the sequence in Amelie where Audrey Tautou plays a series of pranks on a cruel produce vendor, and the escalating battle of wits in Micmacs would have more bite were the bad guys not so witless. Jeunet fills Paris with his customary oversaturated greens and richly textured blacks: the colors are entrancing, yet before long looking at them takes on the quality of a sugar high. By the end, when the director foolishly tries to shoehorn Real World Concerns into his fantasy theme park, you can't wait to come down.


Ronak M Soni said...

Interestingly, what I really liked about Scott Pilgrim was the utter lack of irony, the fact that it always plays it straight, that it's basically and simply a cliched story told exhilaratingly (much like Speed Racer, which I re-watched last weekend and now love).
The comics provide an interesting study of living in a world oversaturated by culture, but the movie isn't exactly the sort of thing you'd call deep.
But I loved it nevertheless.

And how can we expect Amelie (which I share your dislike for) to teach the guy a lesson? Everyone loves it. It's still at #50 in IMDb.

Craig said...

Thanks for commenting, Ronak. I meant "irony" in terms of the attitude projected by the two leads, which I thought clashed with the sincerity of Wright's filmmaking. I went into this biased, but I really can't stand Michael Cera.

Ronak M Soni said...

I thought I would hate Cera too, but I loved him in this; while I can get your point about MEW (even though I thought even she played it straight, truthful to the movie, if a little annoying, but that was in character -- but I can understand where you got the idea that she was being ironic), I have not the slightest idea why you think he was ironic.
He was the best and simplest buffoon there is. Irony? He doesn't know the meaning of the word.

JM said...

haven't seen the movie,but the two Scott Pilgrim volumes I've read have a bit more depth to the characters, it seems. I enjoyed Cera in Arrested Development, but yeah, Pegg seems to have more pathos what with Spaced and Shaun of The dead, really.

FilmDr said...

So which is Scott Pilgrim? Exhilarating or tedious? I can understand your dislike of Micmacs, but I wonder how much your dislike of Cera colored your view of the rest of Scott Pilgrim, and your acknowledgement of the dazzling techniques of the film still seems begrudging. I still think that Wright's formal innovations will stand out and prove surprisingly influential amongst all the other tamer, more predictable films of 2010.

Craig said...

Exhilaratingly tedious, right.

FilmDr said...

Well, you mentioned that you found passages of the film exhilarating. We can just agree to disagree.

By the way, I've been enjoying The Best American Noir of the Century based on your recommendation.

Craig said...

Sorry, Film Doc, I was being flip.

More thoughtfully: For me, the movie was like riding a rollercoaster (just to pile on another metaphor on top comic books and video games). It's exciting for a little while, but before long the repetition wore me out. Edgar Wright does some imaginative work, I agree; yet I didn't feel like he knew the lay of the land here quite like his films in England. (Shaun of the Dead applies British comedy-of-manners to a grisly zombie attack; Hot Fuzz applies American trigger-happiness to rustic Wicker Man tropes.)

But, like I said, I may have enjoyed it with more appealing leads. I don't care for Cera, but I certainly went in hoping to like him. And my crush on Alison Pill almost compensated.