‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World': The year’s most honest romance?

Aug. 12, 2010 | 8:33 p.m.

Our “Pilgrim”-age continues at Hero Complex as guest blogger Todd Martens from Pop & Hiss considers the film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and affairs of the heart.

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Could “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” be the next (500) Days of Summer?

Yes, the Edgar Wright-directed film flirts with absurdity, as anyone who has seen even one of the TV spots can attest. There are seven “evil” exes, and they’re not just jealous: one has the power to summon “demon hipster chicks.” Police can blow through walls, but punishments are doled out for cheating on a vegan lifestyle rather than any of the carnage the film ‘s characters inflict on the city of Toronto. And highlights in your hair? A well-placed punch can knock them to the floor.

And yet Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the actress who stars as the coveted Ramona Flowers, is willing to make this proclamation: “It says a lot more about how people in their 20s deal with relationships than any other film I’ve seen recently. I think it’s amazing in that respect. You expect it to be funny and visual and entertaining, but it actually has a lot of heart. It strikes a chord a lot deeper than one may expect.”

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Big words for a film that has an 8-bit “pee bar” that drains when Michael Cera‘s Scott Pilgrim uses the restroom, but Winstead isn’t talking nonsense. “Scott Pilgrim,” set in a video-game-inspired universe dreamed up by Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley, is in many respects more closely aligned with “High Fidelity” than with Street Fighter II. Emotions are articulated by rock ‘n’ roll, break-ups feel as if they’re of life-and-death importance, and the characters are nostalgic for all things pop culture. It’s an examination of a fear of commitment and relationship insecurity, with trips to record stores, the occasional martial arts sequence and Nintendo-inspired surrealism.

“The relationship [between Scott and Ramona] is not black and white,” Wright said. “This is not as easy as boy meets girl, and boy gets girl. There’s a point during the film where Scott Pilgrim becomes unsure whether this is even worth continuing.”

At its most simple, “Scott Pilgrim” is a pop-obsessed action-romance mash-up in which Scott must do battle with Ramona’s seven exes. Despite her trail of baggage, Ramona’s the embodiment of his dream girl. He’s obsessed; he rambles to her about Pac-Man and cooks up elaborate schemes to see her.

“He’s instantly off-putting and refreshing at the same time,” Winstead said. “He’s this doofus trying to talk to her, but it’s kind of sweet. I think that’s the appeal of all those sort of ‘geeky’ guys. It knocks you off guard a little bit. It’s kind of adorable.”

Of course, the closer Scott gets to Ramona, the more he learns about her past…

As the relationship progresses, it doesn’t hit a comfort level. Instead, the pair bicker and struggle to communicate, and Scott has to battle through Ramona’s fears of commitment.The fight scenes became elaborate metaphors for the status of the couple’s relationship, and Scott realizes he’s fighting not just Ramona’ past, but also his own insecurities about whether he can deal with dating someone who doesn’t share his enthusiasm.

“This isn’t all rainbows and hearts,” Wright said, although plenty of the latter appear when characters lock lips. “Ramona has a curse. For all her confidence and strength, she’s broken. She’s the quiet center of the storm. There are people like Ramona who drive men crazy without doing anything. They create chaos and heartbreak, and they have no intention to. I don’t think Ramona is a bad person, but she’s created these jealous storms around the country.”

The film’s lovesick depth is layered under quick cut-aways, fantastical special effects and extended rock ‘n’ roll performances. It all moves very fast, and one criticism I’ve heard is that for as entertaining as it all is, it never feels like anything is at stake.Yet dating drama is heightened by those who are experiencing it, and “Scott Pilgrim” captures the main character’s view of the universe — one where people don’t have personalities, they have traits, and compatibility is based on how much one’s taste aligns.

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It’s a way of life informed by rock romanticism and sitcom idealism. As “High Fidelity’s” Rob Gordon says, “What came first, the music or the misery?” Likewise, Scott Pilgrim’s life is shaped by the pop-culture he’s consumed, so much so that when a character throws an insult at him, he asks, “What’s that from?” Surely everything must be taken from some film or TV show.

O’Malley tapped into this thoroughly modern affliction. And, full disclosure: I can relate. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I was happy to accept the assignment to write about the film. Though I have always been curious to further learn about the world of Scott Pilgrim — I first spoke to O’Malley for The Times in 2008 — the reason I volunteered to write a number of pieces about “Scott Pilgrim” is largely that I thought it would impress a girl. There it is. That is true.

On a recent second date with someone I more-than-kinda dug, and amidst a session of Neo Geo’s Metal Slug, she showed me the “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” avatar she’d created, flashing a dashing smile that absolutely devastated me. Cue chills. I was hooked. Immediately, I said, “Oh, I made one, too.” I hadn’t. I lied. But it was a small lie, and as Pilgrim says in the film, no one was “wronged.”

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To cover my tracks, though, I created one as soon as I got home. It’s the unfortunate belief that a simple disagreement or lack of some shared knowledge, be it a pop song or a promotional tool for a movie, can send a potential relationship spiraling out of control. “I didn’t even know there was cool music until two months ago,” 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) shrieks in horror at one point in the film, as if her poor music collection is the reason Scott Pilgrim cheated on and dumped her.

There’s another moment in the film where Scott tells Ramona that he doesn’t do drugs — unless, of course, she does them, in which case he does them all the time. Each of the three times I’ve seen the film, that line has gotten a laugh, and each time I’ve cringed. So that’s not the right thing to say? That’s not considered charming?

“Everything he’s doing is a put-on to seem cooler,” Cera said.

Said Winstead of Pilgrim: “He doesn’t say the right things, but he genuinely likes her. He likes her in a really adorable and endearing way. That’s why she’s willing to give him a shot.”

I ended up losing. In what was undoubtedly a cruel reference to “Scott Pilgrim” bestowed upon me by the universe, the girl went back to her ex before the third date. So … writing a story about a movie she wanted to see clearly wasn’t the way to her heart. But if anything in life feels as if it comes with a reset button, it’s dating. When things are going well, one can take on the world. When things are going poorly, one feels as if life is over. “Scott Pilgrim” explores the extremes.

A key to to the movie’s honesty is the fact that Scott Pilgrim is far from perfect. In the beginning of the film, he recklessly breaks the heart of Knives, uninterested because dating her is too comfortable and she’s a wee bit too obsessed with him. Yet he soon finds himself on the receiving end of the same situation.

“Ramona is escaping from the exes and just wants a nice guy,” Wright said. “Scott thinks Ramona is the love of his life. Ramona never, never says that. She even tells Scott he’s the nicest guy she’s ever dated. But is that good? The idea is that Ramona is doing to Scott what Scott did to Knives. Scott is frustrated. He may just a be a placeholder. He’s frustrated that it’s not love at first sight for her. He can’t really accept that.”

The ending won’t be spoiled here, but like “High Fidelity” and “(500) Days,” “Scott Pilgrim” will no doubt inspire optimism in geeks everywhere chasing the out-of-his-league-girl, reinforcing the belief that neurotic tics, a good taste in music and an ability to kick some video-game butt are all traits that a woman will find — to use Winstead’s word — “adorable” in a grown man. Far-fetched? Maybe. But if you want a reason for hope, look no further than O’Malley himself.

“It’s not like I understand women,” O’Malley said. “I’ve made an effort through this process and being alive and writing these books, but I’m still figuring that out. I don’t know, I have a really cool wife, and I don’t know why she sticks with me.”

So, game on . . .

Todd Martens

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Photos, from top: Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers (Universal Pictures); The cover of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (Bryan Lee O’Malley / Oni Press); Cera and Winstead (Universal Pictures); Ellen Wong as Knives Chau (Universal Pictures); A promotional poster for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (Universal Pictures)



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Comments


6 Responses to ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World': The year’s most honest romance?

  1. Hey Todd, did that girl ever read this?

  2. Todd Martens says:

    Hi AmbroseKalifornia,
    Thank you for reading the whole way through and thank you for commenting. As far as the answer to your question, I honestly have no idea and suspect I probably never will.
    Cheers,
    Todd

  3. Rick Chung says:

    Thrillingly epic but flawed :: http://j.mp/dgooF5

  4. Derek says:

    Todd – I just stumbled across this article and I wanted to say you perfectly summed up my feelings on the "Scott Pilgrim" 'universe' in general. I think it is one of those things that people will either get on an emotional level or not. For me, funny as the movie is, there are plenty of cringe-inducing "yeah, I wouldn't know about those feelings…" moments. This was the best article that I have read about the movie.
    Derek

  5. [...] feature-film directorial debut and opened doors that led to him to “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and Marvel’s planned “Ant-Man” project. “Shaun of the Dead” [...]

  6. [...] for a act’s new album, due this fall. The arriving manuscript facilities guest vocals from “Scott Pilgrim Vs. a World” star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as good as a full rope and [...]

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