Was Scott Pilgrim too cool to rule at the box office? Ticket takings for August 2010 suggest as much.
In the US, Edgar Wright’s adap of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series took an ass-whupping from The Expendables, audiences voting for old-school genre grunts over new-school genre-busting.
Total taste bypass, or what? But it was also a smarting smackdown, made more stinging by the gap between Scott’s earnings ($46m) and its production costs ($60m).
But we shouldn’t worry. Why? Easy: disc life. There’s a grand tradition of films overcoming opening stumbles to conquer the home-ent frontline: Blade runner, Fight club, Donnie Darko.
Wright’s rom-THONK-com mash-up isn’t in their league, but it bursts with the cult-afterlife stuff of vivid characters, quotable dialogue, a world bent to unique rules and fun’n’flashy formal flair. If “every cut is a lie”, as French legend Godard said, Wright revels in artifice.
At first viewing it’s too much to digest, exciting but exhausting in its pinball pacing, split-screen effects, zingy-deadpan dialogue, 64-hits-a-second action and musically choreographed glances. But that’s all par for the pitch: just as you shouldn’t exhaust a videogame in one sitting, so Pilgrim is made for repeat pick-ups.
The story’s simple at core. Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall offer a basic rites-of-passage romp on the cusp of self-discovery between youth and adulthood.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is 22, feckless, heartbroken, self-absorbed, hopeless with chat-up lines... until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), rainbow-haired minx of his dreams, Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine on rollerskates.
Love blossoms, with catches: to reach third base, Scott must best her seven evil exes in mortal kombat, act like a man even though he looks like a hamster and, above all, learn not to say “lesbians” when he means “love”.
But Pilgrim’s pleasures lie less in story than in the fertility of Wright’s cut’n’paste imagination.
Adventurous genre mergers are the Wright stuff: Shaun of the Dead unleashed zombies in sleepy sitcom London while Hot Fuzz dumped gun-crazy cops in leafy little Britain.
For his Hollywood bow, Wright goes several bases further, pitching a Canadian dweeb into the thick of action-flick conventions, then rebooting the kick-ass genre to the killer-combo tunes of videogames, manga comics, alterna-rock and superhero movies.
It’s a deceptively smart idea, because what seems like style crushing substance actually aims to fuse the two. If you were to peel back a young geek-hipster’s scalp and splash the contents screen-wide, the result might resemble the barrage of indie-cool music (Broken social scene, Metric, Beck), comic-book sound shorthand (“WHUMP”, “PONK”, “TMP”) and powered-up arcade-knockout fights delivered here.
The only problem is, Wright occasionally fumbles the ratio of Cool stuff to actual drama.
It’s not that the cast don’t deliver great characters. Cera earns his uber-geek crown, Winstead wields a weapons-grade array of withering looks and Kieran Culkin (murderously droll as Pilgrim’s gay roommate), Alison Pill and Chris Evans nail their roles head-on.
Nor do we want an excess of touchy-feely stuff: what Jason Schwartzman’s oily Gideon derisively calls “the hugging and the learning”.
But a little air could’ve turned a four-star wallop into a five-star KO, giving Wright’s disparate formal flourishes room to resonate.
Still, you can’t call Wright stingy: every minute of Pilgrim pops with content.
Same goes for the disc, which is so stuffed you’d swear it was concocted by a geek with a shelf-busting DVD collection of his own. Four crack commentaries headline five hours plus of extras.
Opening with a jovial “Hello, gang!”, Wright buddies up with co-writer Bacall and O’Malley for a warm track, where O’Malley reveals the inspiration for Knives Chau (“Bryan, you just spun commentary gold,” Wright gushes) and the director recommends watching the fast-fire action dust-ups on frame advance.
Wright returns with DoP Bill Pope for a second track of surprisingly sparky tech-based talk. On the cast front, Cera, Winstead, schwartzman, Brandon Routh and Ellen Wong bond for a friendly five-way natter, spotting details they hadn’t noticed before (“Ellen, you have stars in your eyes there!”).
Aubrey Plaza, Culkin, Mark Webber and Anna Kendrick then provide a second cast commentary, nursing hangovers but still rising to the task: when Culkin scandalously claims Plaza hit on him the night before, you’d swear you were still in the movie.
Ninety minutes of pre-production featurettes take in initial storyboards, audition footage, animatics and oodles more, all powered by Wright’s infectious enthusiasm.
There’s a great 50-minute Making of too, where we watch Wright joining his cast in a quad-ripping training regime. The suffering pays off in action scenes that far outrank the strenuous wheezing in the Expendables.
So what if sly won the box-office battle? In terms of disc-based durability, Pilgrim takes the long-term campaign.
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