"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 andMicmacs. 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.