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.