Is comedy still comedy when it isn’t funny? Everyone knows the feeling of watching a film that tries hard to be witty, until the moment those attempts become obvious. From that point on you do not wait for a joke to kick in, but for the painful silence afterwards. As if the canned laughter went on a strike with the drum roll. For me this happened to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a mash up between a comic book series, arcade gaming and film.
Sure, I see what director Edgar Wright tries to do with this picture. And he succeeds on so many levels. The pop culture references that have become his trademark are acted out well by his dorky characters. It worked out better with the dorky characters in his zombie flick Sean of the Dead though, but it worked out less with the same kind of characters in his action spoof Hot Fuzz. Here the main problem is some bad writing that fails to deliver, even though lead actor Michael Cera knows how to time and present his puns.
Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a 22 year old nerd from Toronto who’s daily routine consists of mourning over his ex girlfriend and playing in a mediocre rock band called Sex Bob Omb. Scott falls in love with mysterious skater chick Ramona Flowers, who’s purple hair and big plastic goggles make her appear like she has stepped out of a manga series. She can skate through snow too. Her appearance is not without meaning, as Scott has to defeat her seven evil exes in a death match if he wants to win her love. This sets the stage for a cocktail of visual comic book gags, Nintendo action and a musical showdown.
Visually Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens a whole new bag of tricks. Although text on screen isn’t innovative to recreate comic into film (Adam West as Batman, anyone? Pow!), here it is used on a new scale. Words, letters and symbols vastly appear to mimic sound effects, which does get a bit old by the end of the film. But what can you expect from a picture that lives and breathes comic? The editing makes way for this too, as it will hint to a sequential portrayal of the characters by playing with the viewer’s expectations of the next shot. In a classical Hollywood shot by shot type of editing the next frame will be predictable most of the times, but in some scenes of this movie the shots appear to be edited into a sideways manner, as if the viewer really were reading a comic book. There are many narrative ellipses and split screens to support this as well.
The madness doesn’t stop there, as the battles against the exes are all fought as if the viewer were controlling an arcade style game pad. Laws of nature get thrown overboard and the fighters could all be flesh and blood representations of characters from Dead or Alive. This example could easily be traded in with Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter though (I am actually a Mortal Kombat guy, so lets go with that). I do miss the bloody fatalities at the end of the battle because defeated enemies shatter into coins, not guts, but the fights themselves are a lot of fun. The exes make fine enemies and the clashes between them and Scott Pilgrim are won with uppercuts, roundhouse kicks, many-hit-combos, guitar fighting and mind trickery (muahaha, vegans are so easy to fool). One battle even plays out as a match between a music powered King Kong and Godzilla (actually they are Asian dragons and a bear-monkey, but the nod to the cross cultural enemies is obvious).
So why was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World not funny again? It is not the style and it are not the battles that fail to entertain. It is everything that happens in between them. The two hours of runtime are simply too long for a fast paced film like this, especially because some of the dialogue is appalling to say the least. Dorky comments and snappy oneliners, I really enjoy those, but it is so very obvious here. Avid anime fans may recognize the pace and presentation of the dialogue; it is clear that Wright got a lot of inspiration from Japanese cartoons as well as the original comic that has a manga feel to it. But a lot of characters are not important to the plot so they stretch out the moments between the action, which is unnecessary for a film with this setup. Combined with a bad script it feels like the film drags on from time to time. I really enjoyed the references to arcade gaming and most of the visual jokes, but a lot of funny stuff really isn’t funny. Next time cut the crap and go straight to the nonsense please!