Thursday, April 14, 2011
Recently, I put together a list of the Top Fifty Greatest Comic Book Movies for a popular website. My list was solid and honest, but the number one slot was met with much horror and derision, as many people could not handle the truth of my words. It was hard for some folks to face reality.
SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD is kind of a masterpiece.
Not only that, but it is the Number One Greatest Comic Book Movie yet made and anyone who says otherwise is incorrect in their opinion. Also, they have something wrong in their heart. Their cold, shriveled, charcoal briquette of a heart.*
Beyond the fact that SPVTW** is a fun, visually innovative, genuinely moving film, it accomplishes a number of things that yank it up by it's bootstraps to the "classic" level.
- This is a movie that perfectly captures what it means to be young, single, and stupid in an urban area in the 1990s-2000s. Living in a shitty apartment with a roommate, having a terrible band, going to bars and parties filled with other young and stupid people; SPVTW has a verisimilitude that is insane. Having spent my 20s in Manhattan, surrounded by exactly the type of kids that populate this movie, it is more real a depiction of what my life was like than any movie I've ever seen, particularly those that are making a point to capture that feeling (I'm looking at you, REALITY BITES). This film is a sliver of life specific to being right out of college, falling in love too easily, and living in a city filled with other like-minded people your age, all in ironic t-shirts and dirty jeans and fashionable sneakers.
- From a technical, craft-oriented standpoint, SPVTW is a master class in how to stretch the film medium to tell a story. It plays with aspect ratios, focal depths, editing, split screens, color theory, and all the other myriad tools of film-making in a way that seems so effortless that it truly and without exaggeration reminds me of that most name-dropped of movies, CITIZEN KANE.*** All of these tricks and treats are put to use in ways that enhance the story; none of the visual flash is there just to be showy. In fact, much of the visual playfulness is incredibly subtle; I didn't notice the fact the aspect ratios shift (dependent on plot and tone) from scene to scene, until it was pointed out to me on my fourth viewing. This is the kind of stuff that gives movie nerds boners, and I respect that.
- The soundtrack is absolutely killer, and as well-used as any movie since SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Part of the conceit of SPVTW is a battle of the bands, so aside from the general background songs scattered throughout the film, you have several bands that all require unique sounds and audio-personalities****. When you have Beck providing the music for one of the bands, you have already scored an easy A on this exam. Then you start adding Metric, Broken Social Scene, Frank Black, and The Black Lips. Pretty soon you have one of the great soundtracks of the 2000s.
This is a new millennium, you guys. Time to shelve the PULP FICTION and SINGLES soundtracks. They kind of suck, in retrospect.
- SPVTW is second only to SAY ANYTHING when it comes to distilling the Obsessive Crush into a two hour experience. Seeing a girl at a party, followed by awkward first flirting, awkward first half-naked make-out, awkward first public outings, and awkward first argument. Everything is on display, and handled with unflinching honesty, including the strained hours before you lean in for a kiss, and the neurotic nit-picking of every signal (or not-signal). Scott's single-minded devotion to the process of making Ramona his "girlfriend" is a perfect depiction of post-adolescent Young Love, and probably the best since ROMEO AND JULIET, except without the melodrama and euro-trash. Anyone who related to Matthew Sweet's seminal album GIRLFRIEND, or spent the 1990s listening to anything by TEENAGE FANCLUB or THE LEMONHEADS is already primed like an oily shotgun to completely understand the fascination Scott has with the one cute, aloof, too-fashionable girl at a friend's house party. There is so much that is true about their relationship, and all the video game veneer and slick movie-with-a-capital-M artifice falls away when you see them look longingly at each other, despite all of their ham-fisted attempts at being cool (the ones that everyone falls victim to, ages 15- 30).
This is a genuine and sincere relationship, made even more-so by the ambiguous ending, that leaves open the fate of it all. Of course, ultimately, whether or not Scott and Ramona are soul-mates that will stay together forever is beside the point. The idea is that they've both grown a little and are ready to give their crush a shot at something meaningful. This simple point, that two immature people can become a little more mature, learn something about themselves, and give it a go together; this is about as honest as it gets when it comes to movie romances.
- It is the first film to use the visual shorthand language of comic books organically, integrating it into the editing rhythms of moving pictures and creating a thematic texture that not only works well, but becomes inherent to the storytelling. This is not the novelty "BAM! POW!" title cards of the BATMAN television show, this is taking the dynamic nature of what sound effects and motion lines in comics actually represent, and using them to enhance what is already an incredibly vibrant cinematography.
- Typical comic book adaptations, take a property, or a storyline, and hammer them flat with the blunt end of the Hollywood hammer until all subtlety and originality are lost. SPVTW not only stays true to the spirit of the comic, it condenses the last several volumes into something that actually makes more sense, and loses none of the characterization. It's a herculean feat, pulled off with the grace of a Russian trapeze artist.
- The performances were great, all-around. Some of them were exceptional. This is an amazing ensemble cast, and there are no weak links. Some people complained about the casting of Michael Cera as Scott, but at this point I can't imagine anyone else in the role. He brought to the role a perfect mix of cockiness and vulnerability, wit and stupidity, and horny confusion. For a scrawny kid, he was convincing in the physicality of the fight scenes, and he was effortlessly comfortable with a guitar or bass slung over his shoulder. Ellen Wong (as Knives Chau) was heart-breakingly real, and Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Simmons... hell, the entire cast were all scene-stealers. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh absolutely kill as ridiculous villains, oozing with a charisma and humor that totally outshines their larger roles in bigger pictures.
Every character was brought to life in a memorable and funny way, and they all reminded me exactly of people I have met, either specifically or generally. This is because they were honest portrayals and completely relatable, but still tweaked just enough to fit into the film's heightened reality. This is no easy task, yet everyone in this cast pulls it off.
- Um, excuse me? Did I just see a fight with magic, flaming swords and kung-fu? Another 1,000 points awarded.
In the end, this is a movie that took a great comic, and stayed true to the visual style, the characters, the charm, the wit, the pacing, the themes and the heart. It stuck close to the source material, and then tried to make it even better, adding the depth of great acting and amazing music. It added layers to something already terrific, without losing anything (except a few plot tangents and peripheral characters, but I think we can forgive that). SPVTW is a great movie, and I have no hesitation stamping it AWESOME.
* To be fair, there were plenty of things on that list that enraged people, such as placing ANNIE in the top ten, and leaving off a few execrable (but apparently well-loved) choices like WATCHMEN and KICK-ASS. The amount of rage leveled at the list, as it is, was kind of astonishing, often for no more a reason than that I placed RED SONJA higher than PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. I learned a lot about the world making that list.
** Let's just go ahead and abbreviate. Seriously, now.
*** The big difference between the two is that CITIZEN KANE is a ponderous morality tale about tragic hubris and the death of the American Dream, and SPVTW is about an immature Canadian guy, immersed in video games and indie rock, maturing just enough to keep a real girlfriend around a little bit longer. Look, I understand the difference. I'm pretentious enough to genuflect at the former and scoff at the latter. I get it.
**** Did I just make that term up? I don't know if I love it or hate it.