Seal of Approval

I got stuck on a story late yesterday afternoon and consequently missed my last shot at seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Universal, 8.13) for free. Okay, maybe I half-wanted to miss it due to serious concerns about sitting through another default, deadpan, deer-in-the-headlights Michael Cera performance.


Michael Cera (l.), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (second from left) and the cast of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (including Allison Pill, second from right).

It’s gotten to the point where the very thought of Cera and that annoying look on his face — a look that says (a) “Uhhm, do I want to be here?,” (b) “My mind is slightly blown but I’m also kinda bored at the same time,” (c) “Whoa, she’s kinda hot” and (d) “It’s not easy being the hippest, most deapanny guy in the room” — will make my jaw tighten and my teeth start to grind.

But the mostly positive reviews for the film, especially the one by Cinematical‘s Todd Gilchrist, have convinced me that I erred in semi-consciously blowing off last night’s screening. Scott Pilgrim is some kind of generational event flick, and anyone with any pretensions to being half-aware of movies as diviners of cultural currents has to see it and deal with it. It’s possible that I’ll hate it, but it has to be seen.

My son Jett got to the 6 pm Lincoln Square Scott Pilgrim all-media on time, saw it and liked it. I asked him to bang out a couple of graphs.

“If you grew up with Super Mario, Nintendo and Atari, you’ll be in sync with the humor in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” he wrote last night. “It’s a love story structured like a video game in the cutthroat world of dating when you’re 18 to 24 years old. Before you jump into this flick you’re going to have to think video-game rules — second lives, Japanese anime fight sequences, magical powers, and the possibility that anyone, including Michael Cera, can kick the shit out of you.

“I’m calling it the funniest movie of the year, thanks in part to great performances by Cera, Alison Pill and Kieran Culkin. Try to imagine snarky humor in the style of Speed Racer and Dragon Ball Z, and you’ll come close to the chemistry I’m speaking of.

“Can’t buy into the idea that a guy has to fight off seven evil ex-boyfriends to win the girl of his dreams? If so you’re being too literal. Scott Pilgrim unfolds in a realm like any video game you might play today, which always has a sequence of levels and evil bosses you must defeat in order to win the game. Either you get this or you don’t, and guys like Rex Reed probably won’t.

“If you look past the video game motifs, the story’s jabout a wimpy 22-year old boy in love with a tough guarded girl with a rocky past. But otherwise forget about the absurdity — it’s beside the point.”

Update: I’ve learned that last night wasn’t my last shot at seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World for free. There are five more press screenings on 7.29, 8.2, 8.4, 8.9 and 8.11.

36 thoughts on “Seal of Approval

  1. Cera was fantastic in Youth In Revolt. I was getting tired of him, too, but that performance was hilarious. I’d like to see him play a bastard more often.

  2. When I first heard of the Scott Pilgrim story and the “fighting the 7 evil exes” storyline, I thought it was a metaphorical idea made literal with the video game/anime stuff as a boon to a certain audience. The idea that the person you’ve fallen in love with had a life before you is a place we’ve all been and the premise of the story is rising above those petty jealousies or falling prey to them. One way lies maturity and enlightenment, the other depression and solitude. Mix that up with some pretty graphics and, like Jett said, some nifty video game inspired story beats and you’ve got Scott Pilgrim.

  3. I ‘grew up’ with Atari, Mario, et al. I’m also 38yrs old and whilst I feel I’ll probably be unable deny the verve of this film I can’t picture myself liking it. If the tone of the trailers is indicative then the glib, smart arse humour and Ritalin pacing will obfuscate any genuine insight into the teen condition. 90+ minutes of geeky surface and meta froth doesn’t necessarily a zeitgeist make.

  4. Those of us who like Michael, like him because of ‘Arrested Development.’ I probably can’t not like him. But Wells is also right! And Cera seems to be getting whiter and more atrophied- looking in each new movie. Early Woody Allen at least remained consistently Woody Allen-looking for years. At this rate, Cera will resemble a Beluga whale sperm by the time he films the ‘Arrested Development’ movie.

  5. I watched Youth in Revolt last weekend. It was very funny and an easy sit. Much funnier than anything in The Hangover, which inexplicably is this year’s benchmark for uproarious comedy. The Hangover was NOT funny. Youth in Revolt was original, charming, FUNNY, and vulgar at times. Cera was great. And if I was making movies, especially ribald comedies, I would make damn sure I found roles for both Jean Smart and Mary Kay Place … always.

  6. I don’t know what it is but Mary Elizabeth Winstead just seems too…big for Michael Cera. It looks awkward, is it just me?

  7. She is a little bit older than he is, right? He’s still really only, what, 22? 23? I guess maybe she’s that age but it seems like she was playing an older teenager when he was still pretty young on Arrested Development.

    I don’t really care if Cera repeats himself. That’s what most comic actors do. Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller… they tend to play similar guys, too. There are variations, of course, and I’m sure those will come with Cera (and as mentioned, Youth in Revolt already had a pretty decent one with the asshole side of his personality).

    Rayo, pretty much agreed. I might prefer Hot Tub Time Machine over Youth in Revolt because YiR felt like it just sort of ended without much consequence, and HTTM, sloppy as it was, had some huge laughs. The Hangover is the new Wedding Crashers, only I liked the characters in Wedding Crashers way more.

    It’s also curious that Jeff seems to like these fratty hit-and-miss comedies like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers more than comedies with more inspiration and skill, like Anchorman or Step Brothers or 40-Year-Old Virgin/Knocked Up. I guess he dug Superbad, before he turned on Cera for, you know, doing a certain thing a few times.

  8. Even beyond video game logic, I think it’s more apt to view this as a spiritual kin to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It’s a vivid daydream film that can somehow include people bursting into coins and still feel emotionally resonant. It’s is a true return to Edgar Wright’s “Spaced” roots, along with being Michael Cera’s best performance.

    Look at it another way, you either question the logic of musicals (“who the hell breaks out into song and dance every ten minutes??”) or you accept the form and enjoy the experience. And trust me, this is very much a grandiose musical at it’s core.

  9. I get the movie. I get the story, I get the vibe, I’m okay with the “meta” aspects of it all.

    But here’s what I *don’t* get: this cast is too young for the metaphor.

    At 22 years old, Cera isn’t part of the Atari/Nintendo generation, he’s part of the Xbox/Playstation generation. He didn’t grow up with Super Mario Brothers, he grew up with Halo and Final Fantasy. Sure, there’s a generational overlap in video games, but it’s not *that* pronounced. Not sure what the right analogy is, but– kids might play some old video game favorites on a compilation disc or via a phone app, but those are diversions, not part of their foundational soul, as it were. Video games may or may not be art (suck it, Ebert!), but they’re certainly not in the category of every gamer grew up on Super Mario Bros. like every reader breathes in Shakespeare.

    Anyway, maybe I’m wrong here, maybe the Nintendo deal infused the kid culture in the 1990s and 2000s more than I give it credit for, but a lot of the references I’ve seen so far in the trailer at least strike me as remnants of a video game era that died out before the likes of Cera ever turned on their televisions.

    An aside: reading Jett write this, “Either you get this or you don’t, and guys like Rex Reed probably won’t”, I wonder whether he *really meant* Reed or was imagining another, similar looking movie critic closer to home, ahem.

  10. “Try to imagine snarky humor in the style of Speed Racer and Dragon Ball Z, and you’ll come close to the chemistry I’m speaking of. ”

    Sorry, but mention these two turkeys in a review and you’ve lost me. Cera is on the verge of becoming disposable – his movies come and go so quickly they’re like subway trains. MIss it? Don’t worry, there’s another one next month. He needs to go away for a year and resurface in a good drama to make people care about him.

  11. Back to my long standing theory that when it doubt, it is all about the director. I am sure no one here needs to be reminded of his credits, but Edgar Wright has made two solid flicks (plus cut his teeth on the very funny Spaced). He is a decent-to-good story-teller and can handle multiple genre’s within the same movie. He has certainly done nothing to deserve our doubt that he will deliver a solid flick and pull a decent performance out of Michael Cera.

  12. “At 22 years old, Cera isn’t part of the Atari/Nintendo generation, he’s part of the Xbox/Playstation generation.”

    I’m just a couple years older than Cera, and while I’d definitely count myself among the “Xbox/Playstation generation”, the earlier consoles and their respective “seminal” games made as deep and lasting an impression on me as say, Raiders or Star Wars, which I experienced around the same time. I remember with vivid detail the first day I ever played an NES, trading off with my dad, splayed out on the living room carpet… Zelda sleepovers — I could draw you level maps from memory.

  13. Bob_Roberts..I completely agree. Wright is the sole reason I have any interest in this movie. I just watched “Hot Fuzz” again a couple of nights ago and it remains fresh and insanely funny. There is a razor thin line he had to tread in that movie and “Shaun”. Pulling it off like he did shows serious chops.

  14. @crazynine,

    The thing is, that’s not true of guys that age in Scott Pilgrim’s demo/temperment – i.e. low-income hipster brats who’s video game baseline were their older sibs hand-me-downs. To “real” Scotts, Xbox/PS2 were what jocks did in their free time – if he owned a modern console it was a dreamcast or a gamecube.

    Having seen the movie, I think it works and Cera works because it’s NOT the usual Cera part. Scott THINKS he’s a sensitive, misunderstood “nice guy” who finishes last; but he’s ACTUALLY kind of a selfish dick. The whole “evil exs” thing is about beating this realization into him – hurting him the same way he’s hurt a succession of women who “failed” to help him feel good about himself.

  15. 25 and raised on Super Mario Bros. here. The cast isn’t too young — they’d have had Super Nintendos in their formative years and would be nostalgic for 8-bit when the 64 rolled around and they all got NES emulators. That reference point feels right to me.

    But to de-geek a moment…

    The books’ fatal flaw is that they’re never sure whether the 7 exes thing is a real narrative force, a metaphor for dating someone with experience, or a Final Fantasy type random battle conceit. At different points it’s all 3, which is OK in the moment but which makes the whole enterprise feel very frivolous in the end. MovieBob’s comment suggests the film takes a stance on this point, which would be a significant improvement over the books, regardless of how old the readers might be.

  16. >He didn’t grow up with Super Mario Brothers, he grew up with Halo and Final Fantasy. Sure, there’s a generational overlap in video games, but it’s not *that* pronounced.

    He could still have been playing Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 64 (the latter would be exactly in his formative-childhood-wheelhouse).

    There’s enough overlap in videogame generations, and the boss-level mechanic is still pervasive enough even today, that I don’t have an issue with this.

  17. Yeah, the 8-bit Nintendo era is still seen as the Golden Age of games among “gamers” (which is different from just “owners of game consoles”) so even kids YOUNGER than scott tend to know these references and sound effects. Plus, emo/hipster brats (which pilgrim and co are) tend to live faux-homeless and do their gaming on handhelds, and handheld-gaming pretty much automatically means self-referential nintendo gaming, because the PSP is worthless.

    @Wiggles,

    The fights are “real” in the movie, but its clearly not “our” reality the film is set in to begin with: EVERYONE has super-powers, knows kung-fu, etc; but everyone is really banal about it like its an everyday thing, like the dance numbers in a musical. Its implied that Ramona is somehow “more” beyond-human than everyone else, and her influence is what “charges up” the evil exes (and scott) but it’s never spelled out – its just “how it is here.”

  18. “If you grew up with Super Mario, Nintendo and Atari, you’ll be in sync with the humor in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” he wrote last night. “It’s a love story structured like a video game in the cutthroat world of dating when you’re 18 to 24 years old. Before you jump into this flick you’re going to have to think video-game rules — second lives, Japanese anime fight sequences, magical powers, and the possibility that anyone, including Michael Cera, can kick the shit out of you.”

    That’s actually a turn-off for me, and I’m supposed to be a prime target for it. Probably because there’s too much shit out there like it already in live-action form. Gotta give me more to chew on, Jett. I should be able to enjoy it, whether or not I do “get” it, ‘cus I’m all geeked out after that Die Hard INO from Wiseman.

    How about some personal insight or growth?

    See, that’s why I dug the pre-Jay and Silent Bob Kevin Smith, because he balanced his comic book fetishes with characters somewhat anchored in reality, which makes me wonder more why he was so ironically afraid of doing Green Hornet.

    Eloi: I liked him in it, too, which is why Pilgrim seems a bit of a downgrade. I guess I’ll end up seeing it, ‘cus August is such a dead zone, but probably after Expendables and/or Earthsea.

  19. Moviebob, I hate to split hairs, but I’d take issue with your statement re: the 8-bit era being the golden age of gaming for gamers. It’s the 16-bit era that most folks from that era consider sacred, while 8-bit is considered somewhat more stone-age. That said, it’s also worth pointing out that there were no “gamers” back then- term “gaming” didn’t enter the mainstream until sometime between the PS1/PS2 eras. We were just nerds who played video games, and I still find the term “gaming” monumentally stupid.

  20. Gotta second MarkVH on the 16-bit era being the “classic” era, although to be fair, that’s probably as much a function of my age than a genuinely aesthetic sense that the games were objectively “better” (although I would certainly try to argue that!). However, I’m definitely included in the age range where I still also know the exact warp locations in all three of the original SMB games and memorized every single map of the N64 classic Goldeneye as ’87-’97 spanned my “serious” gaming years.

    Even though I still play fairly regularly now, I’m admittedly a pretty far cry from “hardcore.”

  21. @Mark/Citizen

    Fair enough. I meant “Golden Age” more in a generational/historical sense than a quality/impact sense – like how the pre-to-immediately-post movie era is called the Golden Age even though the “Silver Age” of the late-50s to mid-70s has more actual relevence and impact on films of today. Would a functional compromise be “cartridge era” versus “disc era?”

    What I’m more looking to communicate is that the generation/lifestyle-niche that SP’s main characters occupy tend to idealize the paltformer/2D-fighter/arcade game era over the 3D/FPS/online-multiplayer era regardless of which age they actually “came up” in. Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be 22, but he’s exactly the sort of gamer who has a prefered “Smash Bros.” character, has the old Zelda cartoon on DVD and regards Halo/Call of Duty as something “douchebags” are into.

    @Mark

    FWIW, “gaming”/”gamer” were already “entrenched” terms in the role-playing/D&D world for a few decades, but got expanded to include video game afficionados in the internet age when the two more-or-less “joined forces.”

  22. I have to admit I’m somewhat stumped by all the outrage people have over how Cera is “the same” in every movie, or that he does “too many” movies.

    He was a KID when he was stealing scenes from Jason Bateman and David Cross, and he managed to fashion a movie career out of it. So he did a few movies. Superbad, Juno, Nick & Norah, Year One, Paper Heart, and Youth In Revolt.

    Admittedly, there is a dip in quality in the middle there, but still: that’s hardly an excessive amount of films to be in over the course of three or four years. And as weak as, say, a film like Year One turned out to be, you can understand why he’d want to sign on to a project and might assume it would turn out funnier than it did, given the level of talent involved.

    As for the “he’s always the same” complaint– I never quite get why all actors are expected to be chameleons like Peter Sellers or Daniel Day-Lewis and transform themselves for every role. Personally, I think an actor like Tom Hanks does too many films where he doesn’t use his natural personality but instead layers on a forced Boston or Southern accent, because that’s what “serious” actors do. But not everybody is Meryl Streep, y’know?

    (It’s also not even technically true that Cera only has the one comic persona– in addition to the awkward nice guy parts, he seems to love also playing characters who are rotten to the core, whether he’s riffing on himself as an arrogant celebrity or playing the Francois DIllinger alter ego in Youth In Revolt.)

    In any case, I think Jesse’s Bill Murray/Michael Cera comparison is apt. No one complained that the Bill Murray who showed up in Ghostbusters was essentially the same guy who’d been in Meatballs or Stripes. But somehow, for Cera, his comic persona isn’t enough– he should be “different” just for the sake of being different.

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