Directed by: Edgar Wright || Produced by: Eric Gitter, Nira Park, Marc Platt, Edgar Wright
Screenplay by: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright || Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman, Brie Larson, Ellen Wong, Aubrey Plaza
Music by: Nigel Godrich || Cinematography: Bill Pope || Edited by: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 112 minutes
The phrase “style over substance” as a derisive term never made sense to me with respect to filmmaking. Given how the art of cinema, or the ability of a narrative or project to become cinematic, is by itself an act of visualizing theme, characters, and conflicts, I never understood how a film could be stylish without being substantive. The style of a given film, like most art media, is largely the point of that film, how well it is able to capture or summarize its narrative, themes, or central idea through camerawork, moving bodies, and editing. One could argue particular stylized (re: audio-visual) elements of a film work against its main premise, thus contradicting other elements of its cinematic tone (e.g. pointless digital FX, on-the-nose product placement, excessive, deliberate handheld long-takes that draw attention to themselves at the expense of a given sequence, etc.), but more often than not, I’d argue a bigger problem in movie-making is the misguided attempt to force ostensible “substance” where it doesn’t belong. This may include everything from saccharine romances in genre-films to dialogue-driven humor in comedies to the photographs-of-people-talking that constitute most Oscar-bait, but my point is all the above have nothing to do with visual “style.”
A great example of a film embracing style (striking editing techniques, memorable blocking, prolific special FX, dynamic camera movement, etc.) as its ultimate substance is Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, adapted from the concurrent graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (henceforth, SPW) oozes such pulpy, colorful, playful charisma as a function of its comic book source that it made me appreciate just how “un-stylized” (re: non-cinematic) most comic-adaptations are. Continuing the trend of sidestream, non-superhero comic-adaptions (e.g. Hellboy , Dredd ) embracing their source material far better than their mainstream graphic novel counterparts (e.g. the DC Extended Universe [2013-present], the Marvel Cinematic Universe [2008-present]), SPW demonstrates how effective over-the-top comic fantasy can be as a filmmaking tool in the right hands. Those hands are Edgar Wright’s, in this case, as he waxes and weaves a masterful, gut-busting comedy that’s part comic wet-dream, hipster satire, musical, and kung fu videogame homage.
Though Wright is perhaps best known for his career-defining work with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on the Cornetto Trilogy (2003, 2007, 2016), SPW is his greatest, most enduring feature. This is comparable to how John Carpenter’s most recognizable pop culture achievements are Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981), but over time The Thing (1981) has solidified as his greatest work. SPW is both funnier than the entire Cornetto Trilogy without being as dependent on such striking cinematography or editing techniques, though both are still prevalent. Wright’s camera pans are smoother, his zooms more deliberate, his scene transitions more effective, and his quirky editing more refined. Though the movie is bursting with self-reflexive cinematography and colorful digital FX, everything is in service to the story’s progression, its characters’ development, and most of all, the film’s humor. Nothing is wasted in this $85 million action-comedy-musical special FX extravaganza.
Put another way, SPW’s narrative is not “special” save for the way it is told — again, style over substance to the benefit of the filmmaking. A boy (the otherwise unlikable Michael Cera) meets girl (the versatile Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with a lot of baggage (a bunch of clingy, stalking
ex-boyfriends exes), and awkward hilarity ensues. That’s the story, in a nutshell; what makes this cinematic is Wright and company’s use of visual humor, FX, a sharp cast, and gonzo editing (re: style) to flesh it out.
Much of the time, it’s difficult to discern whether SPW is more action film or musical, given its simultaneous emphasis on both to generate unforgettable jokes. Kieran Culkin responds to a two-second (literally) rock performance by shouting, “It’s not a race, guys!“, but later Satya Bhabha summons Demon-hipster chicks to launch fireballs at Cera, which precedes Cera competing in a funky bass guitar competition with superpowered (literally) vegan Brandon Routh, which is later outdone by Cera’s rock band, dubbed Sex Bob-Omb (I’m not kidding) creating a Tron (1982)-esque gorilla monster to fight equally Tron-esque twin dragons from a Japanese electronica duo, which is ultimately capped off by Cera dueling Jason Schwartzman in a cyber-katana fight that would make Kill Bill (2003-2004) proud. This is all in the same movie; it all works, too.
If I had to muster complaints about this picture, they would be in regards to some of the film’s incessant, cynical, sarcastic hipster nonsense. What I mean by that is everything annoying about snobbish liberal arts colleges, anime super-fans, videogame nerds, “indie” rock bands, and spoiled, upper middle-class Millennials is in this movie, personified by Michael Cera himself. Arguably Wright’s most impressive feat is turning all these cliches on their head, satirizing them effectively, while both subverting Cera’s unlikable personality and earning your sympathy for him at the same time. One could never believe a non-celebrity who looked and acted like Cera could compete for anybody’s ex-girlfriend, but the cinematic fantasy of it all, not to mention Cera’s titular character arc, sells it nonetheless. Aiding this cause is one of the greatest supporting casts of any comedy in the modern era, including all the above in addition to Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, and Chris Evans. Yeah, that Chris Evans.
The ultimate argument for a great film like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that its style is its substance; its style is its cinematic power, and that’s all one needs to understand to enjoy it. Wright’s magnum opus is a better action film than most action flicks, Western or Eastern, is funnier than most comedies, animated or live-action, and is the best musical produced outside the Indian subcontinent in at least twenty years. The fact it can take someone like me, a person who is highly irritated by hipsters and indie rock bands, has little to no patience for Japanese animation or pop culture, and can’t stand Michael Cera as an actor, and make me love this film, is the greatest compliment I can muster. The movie is a multi-genre knockout.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: That Edgar Wright’s best film would have no contributions from the likes of Simon Pegg is surprising, but not as much as as it starring the likes of Michael Cera. With the help of fantastical editing, psychedelic yet purposeful special FX, and a supporting cast with terrific chemistry, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World transforms into the ultimate celebration of white boy-hipster nerdiness. It’s hip, happening, and deserves to be blowing up your 4K TV right now.
— However… nothing is more fantastical than portraying Cera as a “lady-killer,” however stylish his environment. He’s not even convincing as an underdog at the film’s outset.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, in case there was any doubt.
? Do you know how long it took to get all the evil exes’ contact information so I could form this stupid league? Like, two hours! TWO HOURS.