Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

This was a bit of a disappointment, though seeing this with a collection of fanboys made me feel like Clooney at the Palms.

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.

Some actors have become legends by establishing a persona. With a few exceptions, Jack Nicholson has played the same rogue since the 1970s. Sean Connery's subdued senior cool was so convincing that regardless of whether he was a Russian submarine captain or a Chicago cop, he never altered his Scottish brogue. The same applies to Michael Cera, who has developed a nice little career by being earnest, self-depreciating, and a little awkward. He's the walking embodiment of what every girl claims she wants—smart, cute, and funny—if only the guy had the balls to make a move. Think John Cusack without the confidence or the muscle tone.

Can those qualities make you a movie star, though? Based on Cera's latest effort, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the new action comedy from writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), I'd say no. What makes Cera so appealing is also what makes him a gamble as a matinee idol.

Cera plays the title character, a young sad sack with a struggling rock band and an underage girlfriend (Ellen Wong). The days pass along in a slacker haze, until Scott dreams of a girl riding around in roller skates. It's an unshakeable image, but one that's tangible: The girl exists and she's just moved to Toronto, Scott's hometown. Her name is Ramona Flowers, who's played with aloof sexiness Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Scott presses acquaintances for details, eventually learning that she works for He orders a super-cool item, waits for it (and, illogically, Ramona) to arrive, and then makes his move. Granted, he gets her to go on a date by refusing to sign for the package, but a yes is a yes.

Their courtship is awkward. Ramona has moved to Toronto to get away from the drama of New York City, so she's not exactly chatty; Scott's so overwhelmed that it's a miracle he doesn't keep fainting. Clearly something is brewing, because Scott soon faces the challenge of a lifetime. In order to keep dating Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil exes, who range from a vegan punk rock bassist (Brandon Routh) to an eye black-wearing lesbian (Mae Whitman) to a sleazy music mogul (Jason Schwartzman). They all have superhero powers and super-sized grudges, forcing Scott to face his flaws and summon his inner and physical strength.

The battles, modeled after video games and comic book rumbles, are presented by Wright with his tongue very firmly planted in cheek. It's a clever idea, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World never gets beyond that concept. Wright excels at taking tired genres (e.g., zombie films, buddy action films) and extracting fresh humor, but here he's shackled by a plot requiring six similar fight sequences and a star stuck on Bob Newhart mode. I know that Cera's presence is supposed to be funny, but it's a little much to ask an audience to play along for 112 minutes.

Especially when the supporting cast is so blah. Aubrey Plaza, as Scott's non-combative neighborhood nemesis, rehashes her lazy-voiced attitude from Funny People; Anna Kendrick employs the same efficient perkiness that bafflingly earned her an Oscar nomination for Up in the Air; Schwartzman plays another blowhard; Alison Pill (Milk, Pieces of April) plays another grump. Uniformity soon settles over the movie like a dense fog. Despite its winking style and subversive source material (a series of graphic novels), Wright is reluctant to commit to belly laughs or to expand the characters beyond buffoonish hipster caricatures. The movie is too busy being cool and ironic to care.

Cera isn't left to fend for himself. He gets help from Winstead and Kieran Culkin (as Scott's "cool gay roommate"), but they can't compensate for Cera's lack of range. Every line he utters sounds like an apology, and the more we see of his sensitive, funny-guy antics, the more we're reminded why Timothy Hutton never survived as a leading man. Michael Cera is a hell of a supporting comedian with his own distinct style, which Scott Pilgrim vs. the World turns into a soulless trademark like Megan Fox's lips or Hugh Jackman's chest. Hollywood has always offered too much of a good thing, and Cera could be the next casualty if he's not careful. [PG-13]

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