Pilgrim’s Regress

[Film] Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

The most buzzed about film of the year, Edgar Wright’s Hollywood debut finally arrives to a near universal fanfare of acclaim from the Comic Con brigade and broadsheets alike. An adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six volume graphic novel, the story can be summarised pretty quickly. And frankly, Wright didn’t bother expanding on it much, so I won’t either.

Toronto resident Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is your typical twentysomething indie mope. A symphony of bootcut denim, slogan tees and studiously unkempt hair; he’s essentially a hipster extra from a Doritos advert. Except not as well characterised. Spending most of his days chugging soya lattes, jamming with his derivative garage rock three piece and romancing his seventeen year old jailbait girlfriend, Knives Chau, his world is (indie) rocked when he spaffs himself dreaming of an unknown piece of grunge clunge, who is later revealed to be former New Yorker and Amazon delivery girl Ramoaner Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winsome). After shooting her a look at the library which leaves her in no doubt there’s a lovingly crafted C90 with her name on it, he indulges in some non-threatening mumblecore stalkerisation until she inexplicably relents to his moist-eyed mooning, and a romantic union of sorts is assured. It’s then that the shit really hits the fanboy as her seven evil exes get all Super Nintendo on his ass, and he has to defeat them all, in order to secure her heart and entry into her Emily Strange knickers. CONTINUE? I wished I hadn’t.

Seemingly custom-tooled to appeal to every balding thirtysomething in an Atari T-shirt (myself included) all the choppy editing, comic book visuals and witty gaming references in the world (Pee bar! LOL!) couldn’t compensate for the two things that were missing: an engaging story and a decent script.  Most of the characters were little more than avatars – a clever riff on its gaming origins? Yeah, right. Cera was a nause; all meercat grins, whiny, quizzical intonation and so ineffectual, it was hard to believe he could summon the energy to post a snarky comment about the new Arcade Fire album on the Drowned In Sound messageboard, never mind defeat seven foes to win the girl of his dreams. Winsome had a certain laconic charm, but was given little chance to shine; her ever-changing hair colour being lazy shorthand for her flighty nature and ever-changing moods. And Kieran Culkin as Pilgrim’s gay flatmate Wallace was little more than an Apatow creation – catty, gossipy, promiscuous and constantly trying to ‘turn’ every other piece of tail in the film. Other reviews would have you believe he’s the star attraction, but that gives more of an indication of the dullness of the rest of the characters than anything else. In essence he was funny because he was gay. Like Will & Grace. The only character I engaged with on any level was Alison Pill as sullen ginge drummer Kim Pine, and that was only really because she seemed to have the same disdain for the schmindie fucks surrounding her as I did.

Having said that, all of the above were let down by the biggest flaw: the gag-light script. The writers seemed to believe that ideas alone are funny, and numerous times potential avenues for comedy were left unexplored and jokes left hanging. For example, when Pilgrim announces to his friends that he’s dating a seventeen year old Chinese girl, the maximum level of zing they can muster is to essentially repeat that fact about three times. Imagaine how funny that scene might have been if say, the writers of The Inbetweeners had got hold of it. In general, the dialogue was perfunctory at best, mostly with vaguely uninterested, hipstery, rise-and-fall delivery in place of a punchline. And when the jokes did appear they were more telegraphed than one of Pilgrim’s leaping punches – “I used to be bi-curious, but now I’m bi-furious.” Oh ROFL. Some of the zingers were even downright confusing, like when somebody enquires why Matthew Patel is dressed like a pirate, when in fact his wardrobe is more akin to the yacht club chic of Vampy Weekend.

More problematic still was the pacing of the film in general. The episodic nature of the source was always liable to prove troublesome and with not much else to distract you, only two fights down in the first hour meant it really dragged. Of course this could have been resolved if you were having fun getting to know the characters in depth, but I sure as hell wasn’t. The relationship between Pilgrim and Flowers was never explained in more detail than “I normally date dicks, and you seem quite nice.” Most of the dialogue just seemed to be killing time until the next set-piece. The fights, when they did arrive were a mixed bag, stylishly enough shot and choreographed and suitably frenetic. If nothing else they provided blessed relief from the laughter graveyard that was the rest of the film. Chris Evans as Lucas Lee and, in particular, Brandon Routh as Todd Ingram – a hot vegan powered by his own pomposity – provided the only real laugh out loud moments. But even these weren’t particularly heart-pounding, the videogame physics meaning that the hits didn’t hurt and there was no real sense of danger. The books allude to the fact that these fights may be taking place in Pilgrim’s caramel machiatto-addled mind, because he can’t deal with emotional issues in reality, but this ambiguity doesn’t really come out onscreen.

Ultimately I found the whole project to be underwritten and somewhat lazy, never really seeking to appeal to those outside its core fanbase, and even treating those within that narrow spectrum with contempt. Just because I’ve clicked the same Facebook ‘likes’ as the director doesn’t mean I’m merely satisfied with seeing them projected back at me on a cinema screen. It’s somewhat ironic that in the final scene Pilgrim mocks Jason Schwartzman’s evil record label boss for corporatising indie culture and selling it back to the, erm… kidults, when in fact this is the very thing the film is doing. Whilst undoubtedly strong visually, it was too in love with itself stylistically to ever bother telling a story properly. No matter how fantastical the premise and inventive the visuals, the central romance still has to be in some way credible, and here it just wasn’t. It’s a half-arsed comparison to make, but everyone else is doing it so I will too: Kick-Ass had memorable scenes, lines, genuine threat and interesting characters with a backstory. Pilgrim had none of that. GAME OVER.

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2 Responses to “Pilgrim’s Regress”

  1. Completely agree, to an annoying extent. A large group of us went to see it, and while there were laughs there, and people by and large kinda enjoyed it, to take the amount of goodwill there was to both the books and the director and turn it into shrugs of “well, it was alright” takes quite a lot.

    The AV Club’s podcast on the issue seemed to indicate that the central romance wasn’t the important part, it was a coming of age story. Well, no. It’s a nice way of trying to justify what was completely flat on screen by saying it wasn’t meant to be seen that way.

    I wish it had taken the ideas and style of computer games and applied it a little more like Neveldine and Taylor. I suppose, thinking about it more, that it a lot to do with bad computer games – shallow characterisation, the stuff in between the fights being flat and irrelevant, gimmicky achievements (pee bar) and so on.

    I was trying to mount some defence of the idea the fighting’s all in his head, but that just opens up a bunch more problems with the film. Thumbs down for me, I’m afraid.

    • Yeah, regardless of your interpretation of the relative levels of reality/unreality of the fights – whether you think it’s a metaphor for Ramona’s emotional baggage or whatever – if you’re going into the film cold, this nuance from the books doesn’t come through at all, and reduces them to clunkily inserted Harry Hill ‘fiiiiiiight!’ scenes.

      Sure, it’s a coming of age story, and you’d never expect the same level of detail as the books, but surely he comes of age *through* his romance with Ramona, so to leave it so sketched in was a big mistake.

      A lot of flaws I may have forgiven if the writing had been a whole lot sharper, but the bottom line was it was nowhere near funny enough.

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