Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim: Attention-Deficit Love Story

Part of the reason the classical reviewers are very lukewarm on Scott - and many of them make the old-hat complaint that they "didn't care about the protagonists" - is easily explained by the whiplash-speed barrage of references and developments. Three or four things happen in each scene, and no scene seems longer than five minutes. The enthusiasts of the previous generation of cinema, raised on Antonioni and Scorcese, want some idle time with their characters, and they want enigmatic and elliptical flashbacks, and they want a gradual succession of insights ("layers," as Shrek might call them). This is how they get to know those characters, and thereby get invested in their conflicts. Pacing.

Wright knows that this shit doesn't work any more, now that we've reached an era when YouTube and video games are as much a part of the cultural discourse as Twain and Joyce. Manipulating the surface is the key, and rapid recognition is invaluable. Scott Pilgrim and his supporting characters are built around confirmations of his audience's expectations: Stephen Stills is the leading man, cool enough to be nigh invisible (Scott Summers with a guitar), Kim Pine is the unstoppable force of tomboyishness and alt-rock angst, Young Neil is the wide-eyed groupie who's made friends with the older kids (his lack of an instrument being his mark of apprenticeship), and as he's directly referred to at one point, Wallace is the "cool gay roommate." I've been some of these characters before, and I've known all of them.

Ramona, being the love-interest, starts as one of the strongest stereotypes: the mythical New York hipster chick. She's beautiful and cynical and savvy, hooked up and culturally literate, and worthy of a main character's obsession. Her roster of ex-boyfriends is pretty insane, comprising a movie star, a rock star, a pair of competitive twin DJ's, and a bigshot hipster record executive. You don't need to have known this girl to know her archetype... every 20-something who migrates to New York has this image in their head.

Ramona's character, kick-started by this detached, irony-ridden archetype, is then given time to develop by way of on-screen quirks and mannerisms. Her snarky attitude is offset by her tenderness on that first date. Her indifference to the fuss being made about her is entirely expected, and as it becomes well-established, her fight with Roxy provides an important turning-point for her character. Ramona has been so aloof in the presence of her exes that up to that point, she was starting to get annoying; it's a good thing that with Roxy, she puts her own pride and her boyfriend's safety on the line.

Even now, it's hard for me to convince myself that a movie can be good on these merits: the fast-paced character shorthand, the jokes and references that are so rapid they're almost impossible to follow. But those things only make the movie fun, and stylistically distinctive... they don't actually make it good.

What makes Scott Pilgrim good, and provides the backbone of its relatability, holding up all its crassness and stylistic excess, is the very human love story, an emblem of young adulthood. The dynamic between Ramona and Scott is very subtle and carefully-handled, providing the stable emotional substance beneath the frills. It starts out as a crush (as desperate and enveloping as those are at that age), and after a few days and a few dates, it suffers from a backlash of resentment (the incomprehensible force that makes Scott act like a douchebag to Ramona for a while). Its intensity is heightened by gossip and social pressure, those slippery experiences of watching your new love getting to know the other people in your life.

The excitement of seeing your crush at the top of the stairs, or among the anonymous crowd at a party you're both attending -- the sudden rush of panic as you realize your girlfriend-on-the-outs has shown up at the same place as your new crush -- the tentative, delicate play of conversation and intimacy that provides the substance of a first date -- the dismay that comes at exactly the wrong moment, when you realize this girl isn't always perfect, and that she may occasionally set off your own negative triggers -- these are the moments, perfectly rendered by Wright and his cast, that make the story of Scott Pilgrim so human, whether on the page or on the screen.

And somehow, the frenetic stylization of Scott Pilgrim enhances this familiar love story, rather than distracting from it. However complicated the on-screen widgets seem to be, Scott Pilgrim is not complex; this kind of observation is usually used as a criticism, but here it's a compliment. The spastic enthusiasm of each scene is engaging, and the simple, emotionally-intense love story is broadly relatable. Scott Pilgrim is a film that lives entirely in the moment: the cultural and historical moment, the emotional moment, and the cinematic moment.