"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." So intones the narrator of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's great 1971 The Go-Between. (The lines themselves, it should be noted, come directly from the L.P. Hartley novel from which the film is adapted.) True, too, but the present can also often come off as a foreign country, depending on who's looking at what aspect of it. And certainly, for a lot of people—and it looks as if older film writers are, at the moment, making up a preponderance of such folks— the present depicted in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World comes across as a very foreign country. And of course it is kind of amusing to see certain critics who encounter the film react to it with teeth-gnashing, these-damn-kids-today-are-ruining-everything-I-loved fulminating that they themselves surely must have mocked their own parents for back in the days of the Beatles, or Harry James, or whoever the hell they evinced an incomprehensible-to-the-older-generation enthusiasm for in their own youths.
Amusing, but not particularly interesting, or maybe only interesting inasmuch as the youth cultural realm depicted in Scott Pilgrim is in fact more than a little anachronistic, right from the relatively low-resolution video-game rendering of the Universal Pictures logo at the film's outset. Scott Pilgrim's gamers do a lot of playing at arcades; Scott himself plays bass in a band that has zero digital elements and a quasi-Beat-Happening thing going on with the instrumentation. These early-20s alt-slack-hipsters are definitely kind of out of time, and not just because the graphic novel/comic book series from which this movie's adapted (and which I haven't read, and had almost zero prior knowledge of—I mean, there's due diligence, and then there's what-do-you-want-from-me-anyway-I-haven't-read-War-and-Peace-yet-for-God's-sake) began publishing in 2004, for heaven's sake. But also because the world of Scott Pilgrim is set in some approximation of Toronto, and Canadian hipsterdom is both a little more studied and a little more relaxed (about a lot of things, being behind the curve being one of them) than the kind you might encounter in Brooklyn. This is a condition not addressed in a whole lot of contemporary films, but Olivier Assayas did a nice job of conveying certain aspects of it in the early scenes of his 2004 Clean.
But still. The very fact that the film partakes in and pays homage to video game culture, and lets that culture be a predominate influence on its storytelling and visuals is enough to inspire eschatological musings, particularly as there's been an uptick in "whatever happened to the good old-fashioned romantic comedies" musings going around the media. Because this is, as it happens, a romantic comedy, and I think a pretty good one, and in its own particular and zeitgeist-specific way it does manage to say some very real and not uninteresting things about the way Young People Relate To Each Other In Our Contemporary Society. At the film's beginning—whose wit has a simultaneously laid-back and jittery quality to it that reminded me, quite pleasantly, of Spaced, the groundbreaking British television comedy that Wright was a prime mover on—the definitively milquetoasty bassist Scott (Michael Cera, and no, I can't say that I myself am sick of him just yet), who's 22, is dating a 17-year-old high-school student named Knives (Ellen Wong), a wide-eyed innocent cutie who's every geek's dream, so to speak, and the movie is quite acute in depicting how such inappropriate crush-objects can turn from cute to kind of irritating in mere moments. When you are 22, I hasten to add. I also enjoyed how the video game trope purposefully ramps up towards the end, as Scott comes to the climax of his epic battle chain with the "Seven Evil Exes" of post-Knives love object Ramona (Elizabeth Mary Winstead) and the video game prompts and sometimes literally spell out the emotional progress the character has made, or, more crucially, believes he has made. Or as Scott puts it at one point, "I think I learned something." These and a host of other formal devices actually are the "emotional content" that certain complainers are just going to automatically complain isn't there; I thought that they were particularly ingenious in conveying that particular, and I think near-universal, or at least generation-transcending, aspect of being young that's a state of constant nagging self-consciousness that you think is going to drive you nuts...except when it's not there, and you act like your actual thoughtless self, and have to deal with the consequences. The inability to do anything right even when you're doing right. And so on.
But on the other hand, to hell with all that. I just had a blast watching the damn thing. Wright's absorption of both comic-book and video-game styles and innovations made this the most formally exciting new film I've seen in a theater since Resnais' Wild Grass. I love the fact that the video-game world in which Scott Pilgrim is set is just a given; there's no "here's reality, and now we're going to enter another realm" hemming and hawing; it is what it is. And it allows Wright to go nuts, packing each frame with information, playing with aspect ratios, dividing the image into awesome Neal-Adams-esque triangles, and on, and on, and on. (One scene, in which Scott wanders trying to figure out how to break up with Knives, is largely done with dissolves, and the use of such a traditional transitional device actually comes as a shock in this context.) And yes, there's a lot here that suggests Gondry-gone-digital, but Wright's sensibility overall is drier, not as wistfully self-involved; more almost sensible, if you will. The formal freedom Wright exercises here transcends genres, and it and harks back to classics such as The Big Lebowski, and, yes, I'll say it, certain of the Powell/Pressburger films—films that take place in entirely created worlds, and where the nods to "reality" or "realism" or what have you are made strictly at the discretion of the artist.
And I thought the film's people—particularly its women—were terrifically winning. I was particularly amused, and disturbed, by how Anna Kendrick, as Scott's naggy sister Stacey, makes the usually insufferable "whatever" stance seem downright...sexy. Maybe it's just me. Then again, had Frasier ever deigned to actually show the character of Maris,well, Kendrick could be said to have the stuff it takes to play her, if you get what I mean. This picture also marks one of the very few times I found Mark Webber even tolerable on screen (don't even talk to me about defending him until you've sat through The Hottest State); in fact he's quite funny here as a hysterically whingy singer named (brilliantly) Stephen Stills. Maybe he just needs to play hysterically whingy characters all the time. But each of the performers, all the way to Brandon Routh, displays charisma and engagement and has impeccable, sneak-up-on-you comic timing. Even as a confirmed Edgar Wright booster (full disclosure: He's my Facebook friend!!!), I was just a bit surprised at how taken I was with the picture, and I'm eager to see it again with my honey, who I think is gonna like it too.