Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

When I saw Hot Fuzz back in 2007, with a couple of compadres, it was like quaffing a cinematic yagerbomb; all I wanted to do afterward was cut loose, do a few keg-stands, and then chittychat my way into some soon-to-be-regretted-but-blissful stupor. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Edgar Wright’s film put me in a sociable frame of mind; I was giddy. (It having been a Friday night certainly helped to advance and accommodate my mood; but rarely can one completely pre-game for college parties without so much as a sip of alcohol.) This limey is like Alain Resnais as a serial prankster—or, at least, his work has such an effect on those of us who grock it. Few filmmakers know how to achieve such calculated spontaneity; it’s all intricately planned out, but it feels in-the-moment, like improv. It’s dry without lacking in emotion; he finesses it so that the dialogue ricochets between performers, and it suckles on their individual energies and spunk. It’s both formalistic and freeing.

That Wright’s new film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—starring Michael Cera and based on manga-inspired comic books by Canadian writer Bryan Lee O’Malley—has been a box-office dud is vaguely, if not wholly, anomalous. Although the film was well-received at ComicCon—Cannes for comic geeks—and can boast a hip soundtrack (featuring Beck and the genuinely eclectic Broken Social Scene) that should’ve been catnip to indie-music geeks, it seems to have been neglected by its target demo. Perhaps everyone’s so bashed by the state of world affairs that they need nothing less exorbitant than The Expendables to rouse them from their funk; or maybe the filmmakers have tapped into a demographic that’s tapped into online streaming; or, possibly, the old truism that people want to see people they “identify with” on the screen no longer holds true. In any case, it’s a misfortune. While it does not live up to Hot Fuzz, Pilgrim is probably the brightest, bubbliest movie this summer; and its failure, which will—for the time being, at least—vote Michael Cera out of stardom, prognosticates some possibly gloomy trends.

From the very first image—a chintzy pixellation of the Universal logo, accompanied by a N.E.S.-styled rendition of its fanfare—we know that Wright is playing with video games. Honestly, that jarred me a bit—particularly when, only a few minutes later, Pac-Man and Zelda’s names were both conspicuously dropped. I sensed the presence of Diablo Cody loitering behind the scenes. But, I was happy to discover, the video-game references are chiefly—and cleverly—stylistic, not spoken. Wright pays homage rather than sucking up. He employs the usual “kaboom!” and “meanwhile” title cards, but—rather than simply reproducing comic-strip frames and thought bubbles—he’s devised an equivalent style of dislocations that is both unique to him and unique to movies, all without failing to scribble in recognizably cartoonish shorthand. True, it’s an instant-gratification machine: A few brief scenes exist merely to be setups for gags, and the quips go by so quickly that the new ones banish the old ones from one’s head. It’s tweet-paced. But his style is also at the service of the boho-Toronto characters—20-somethings who, typically, are fashioned to be idolized by teenage romantics. Pace Iron Man 2, the garishness of comic books can appeal to the outsize feelings of young people; to that extent, comic tropes can provide lighthearted metaphors for real-life experience. The writers’ sentiment (Wright cowrote with Michael Bacall), and Pilgrim’s gentle nudging of hipsters, reminds me of recent lyrics by Arcade Fire: “So much pain for someone so young, well / I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?”

Actually, those lyrics also encapsulate Cera’s persona. He teases his moral uptightness, but it’s there—and it was there hardcore in the last outing of his I saw, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. I think I underrated that movie a bit; I misunderstood its target audience. This isn’t to say that it was anything stupendous, but it carried a laudable amount of conviction for a teenie-bopper flick. Cera, however, seemed to be folding his arms tighter than before; his sorrows were too nebulous for Nick. In Pilgrim, he’s finally gotten a little ballsy; his passive-aggression is in tact, but he’s not afraid to be a dick. However, beneath the balls—yeah, I went there—he still has the awkwardness that manifests itself in the few extra words he interpolates into every sentence, and his not-fully-comprehended need to do the right thing. His naïveté is in the classic Huck Finn mold, and I think it is—or was—at the core of his appeal. Cera might’ve been playing it safe by harping on his little-guy-ness, but he stamped it on every role like a name tag, and—until now, it seems—didn’t do much to renew his caricature. But if his appeal is on the decline, I’m curious to know who—if anyone—might fill that vacuum; and if a vacuum persists, does that mean a regression in tastes? Not-quite-grown-up grown-ups are in now; yet Cera’s edge is that he has a dinky body but an old-soul sensibility. Although he hasn’t demonstrated the same range as an actor, Cera may end up like Elliott Gould: someone so feasted on by his particular film generation that he can’t help but become a relic of it.

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The Kids Are All Right

If I didn’t know who my father was—and it turned out to be Mark Ruffalo—I’d be positively psyched. And so are the beneficiaries of this fate, if only for awhile, in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. On her 18th birthday, at her 15-year-old brother’s insistence, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) calls the sperm bank they hail from, and contacts their shared father. They’ve been raised by their lesbian “moms”: Nic (Annette Bening), Joni’s biological mother, and Jules (Julianne Moore), who wears the same genes as Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Scruffy and soft-spoken—a drifty SoCal chillaxant—Paul seems, at first, too rich for their bloodline; but he’s like a hit from a joint that unrolls this high-strung family. Nic, a successful doctor and the undisputed materfamilias, is immune to his charms; but Jules, the goosey screw-up, is susceptible to them in a way that she didn’t think was possible.

Maybe it’s that combination of sun-dried California drawl, so indicative of ennui, and such topics of debate as how much the household should compost, but this movie made me feel aloof; my reactions could best be described as “mild.” The major action looked like an internecine tiff between New Age-y offshoots, and the movie seemed so embedded in this frame of reference that I began to wonder whether the filmmakers had ever stepped foot outside of a blue state. Rachel Getting Married, with its multicultural marriage, also seemed to concern a serpent nipping at an edenic ideal—but that movie got to me, in large part due to Anne Hathaway’s ferocious ascendency. And this one’s not lacking in strong performances. Ruffalo’s as slithery as ever, and Moore is playing a version of her “loose woman” in A Single Man with the all-is-well mask removed; the insecure lady beneath is safe to come out now because Jules has Nic to anchor her. It’s Bening, however, who nabs the one amazing scene. After rifling through his record collection, Nic parleys with Paul about Joni Mitchell. She’s trying to will herself into liking him, so Nic’s first point of attack sounds like a pitch barked out by Bening’s repressed realtor in American Beauty. But as they trill together, they forge a genuine bond, and Bening communicates it masterfully—mid-song. And when the wind shifts yet again, butch Nic breaks before our eyes; she has to put on her mask for the first time.

The kid actors, too, are more than all right; though the dimly named Laser is incompletely written. We’re cued to think he’s gay, and then told he isn’t; but he never ceases to shoot his vibes all over the place. For squeamish, college-bound Joni—they don’t say which campus she’s dropped off at, but my instinct points to Berkeley—it seems easy to ascribe such mood swings to the hormonal equivalent of a sleeping limb shocked awake; but Laser, the “sensitive jock” with a big mouth who likes team sports—but spends his days Greco-Roman wrestling with a punky nimrod (Eddie Hassell), whose argot consists almost entirely of homophobic slurs and dresses nothing like any varsity letterman I’ve ever seen—is impenetrable. The Aryan Wasikowska looks like Bening; and I think this climate has thawed her from that Wonderland deep-freeze. But she’s still chilly-looking enough to play a prude.

I wanted to like The Kids Are All Right more than I did: Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg—with whom she wrote the savvy, well-observed script—have brought a new, and refreshingly modern, subject to the screen. In theory, I admire its nonchalance. No fuss is made about Nic and Jules being a same-sex couple—but this stance seems both brazen and banal. Perhaps it’s the primordial philistine within me who craved a political contrast between the loner and the lesbians. Of course, if the donor had been more of a social conservative, the film may have lapsed into commercial didacticism of the old school—and I’d probably have to be pregnant (fat chance!) to crave that. But the movie implicitly affirms the same themes: a liberal definition of family and a conservative view of family values. (Ultimately, the film bludgeons Paul with its family values in much the same way that social conservatives bludgeon gay marriage—though it smooths out the circumstances to make this seem less objectionable.) I found none of this too offensive; but nor did I find it very engrossing. And though only a teeny percentage of the films that reach theaters can boast a scene as well-expressed as Nic’s temporary turnaround—or afford performers like Moore and Bening and Ruffalo enough wiggle room to produce such believable neurotics—The Kids Are All Right is directed in such a way that it never captures its tensions very gratifyingly. It might be so widely praised because it’s been released during the movies’ annual estival brain-fart—because it has a subject worth praising, one that connects with the lives of certain people in a way that even very fine mainstream swimmers like Toy Story 3 don’t. (Screen diversity is still limited enough that, for some viewers, the “B” in L.G.B.T.-themed films always seems to stand for “Brilliant!”) But that frenetic track from Vampire Weekend that this movie opens with seemed inadvertently symbolic of something. I really do like that band; but so does my 59-year-old mom.