Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, or How to Fail At Romantic Comedy

I can't seem to figure out what genre Scott Pilgrim vs The World was. Even after seeing it, I felt like it could've fallen into one of several categories: comedy, for the constant slapstick and deadpan delivery; action, with epic battles full of martial arts and outrageous weapons; or maybe fantasy, since this is an alternate reality with subspace highways through people's minds, where death by defeat means you will explode into a pile of coins.

I struggle to call this movie romance, though, which is a surprise, considering the entire premise hits all the usual tropes. The protagonist, a loser named Scott Pilgrim, is supposed to be fighting for the girl of his dreams, the mysterious Ramona. Count 'em off with me, folks: Scott's life is boring and dull until Ramona shows up in his dreams, and for no adequately explained reason other than young adult horniness they start dating despite all the trouble it causes.

So if all the tropes are in line for a romantic comedy, why isn't it?

I'll start with Scott Pilgrim himself. Scott is played by Michael Cera, so really this character shouldn't need any explanation. In case you've been hiding under a rock, though, imagine the most pathetic nerd that you know. He's clueless, awkward, listless, inattentive, and boring. He's unemployed, with no aspirations of getting a real job, even though he's long past the age that it's acceptable. He's living off of his roommate Wallace, who tolerates him out of what can only be described as a sadistic enjoyment of Scott's misery. The rest of Scott's friends hate him too; early on, bandmate Kim Pine says in annoyance, "Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it." These reactions to Scott's aimless existence are really the most relateable feeling you'll get about him for the entirety of the two hours of the movie.

Making the protagonist so easy to hate is dangerous, precisely because it also makes it easy to not want to root for him. When he starts chasing after Ramona Flowers - a fascinating, but otherwise extremely disturbed girl who has a penchant for pissing off her exes with supernatural powers - I enjoyed watching her diss and ignore him from the start. Mostly, I wished that she'd continue it, but alas, we have to force them together despite them initially having nothing good in common and no basis for a real acquaintanceship, much less a reason to make out on a bus.

Ramona, for her part, really isn't all that much deeper or easier to root for than Scott is. Reviewers that are familiar with the comic version of Scott Pilgrim have noted that Ramona's character has been completely stripped of any of her original depth in favor of treating her mostly like a sex object. I'll take it a step further and note that even the film's underaged Knives Chau - Scott's ex - is treated that way. In her case, though, her character obviously does not participate in any sex at all, which appears to be precisely why Scott has to cheat on and then dump her, even though she's a very good match for him in terms of interests, temperament, and maturity. Ramona, however, will let Scott get to second base and needs to be defended, so obviously she's the better choice despite her aloofness and extreme amounts of baggage.

Normally I'd begrudge the movie for the shallow treatment of its female leads, but SPvTW is clearly told from Scott's point of view, and the film version of Scott has a short and shallow attention span. I constantly got the impression that there was tons more to learn about the girls, but that someone as hapless as our protagonist was never going to take the time to bother. For her part, Mary Elizabeth Winstead manages to make the introduction of Ramona into a suitably mysterious and crush-worthy first impression, but subsequent impressions seem to actually be less favorable as we learn she's been an unrepentant bitch up until the time she first appears on screen. And... we never really go deeper than that. Who is Ramona, and why does Scott love her?

It's stated that Scott cares about her because she's the girl of his dreams, and I suppose that's true in a literal sense. To be fair, that's about as much explanation as most plot points from this movie received. Still, if there was one thing they should have taken a few minutes to detail out, it was to give the relationship itself some sort of meaning. Not that it likely could have all that much meaning: if Ramona's claim that she changes hair colors every week-and-a-half stands up - and there's no reason to not take that statement as literally as everything else in this film gets taken - the three colors she does go through means that Scott and Ramona are only together a maximum of about a month, and most of that month's on-screen time was spent in confusion, irritation, or terror.

When I reached the eventual emotional climax of the film, I felt empty and detached from their relationship. The main characters are just so drastically not relateable to most people who've achieved more than a 19-year-old understanding of how love works. At the end, I was cringing. The fact that these relationships were going to continue meant that this train wreck would continue crashing and burning and making them all miserable. Ah, immature romance. I've never wanted a relationship with another human being LESS than I did at the end of Scott Pilgrim.

Does all of this mean I hated the film? Absolutely not. SPvTW has a wonderful supporting cast of characters, including the earlier-mentioned roommate Wallace and deadpan snarker bandmate Kim. Its sight gags and constant barrage of retro gaming references had me quite entertained. Those were definitely the parts I'd come for, not because I cared anything about Scott Pilgrim or his precious little life. I just expected that, by the end of this show, I'd have been given a reason to care just just a bit more than I actually did.

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