I read not long ago that many feel the romantic comedy is dead. Usually when someone makes a statement like that, what is really means is not that the genre is dead, but that the person may be looking in the wrong location. When one speaks of modern romantic comedy, people usually drop the names Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock, Katherine Heigl and Julia Roberts, what might be called the Irene Dunne/Claudette Colbert, Ernst Lubitsch/Leo McCarey approach, a sophisticated, battle of the sexes. In reality, perhaps they should have been looking at a more Preston Sturgess/John Hughes approach to romance, something a bit more messy and anarchic. Last year we had (500) Days of Summer. This year we have Cyrus and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
I have never been a big fan of mumble core films. I never could get that emotionally involved with the characters. For me, this subgenre of a subgenre of films have been about overeducated people who think they are interesting, but aren’t. Baghead is one of the few mumble cores that have worked for me, possibly because it didn’t seem quite so self absorbed. Instead of containing the usual suspects found in this type of film, Baghead was about someone who was tired of not making a movie, so he decides to make one; and an entertaining good time it was, too. The makers of Baghead, Mark and Jay Duplass, aka the Duplass Brothers, have now made a new movie using the mumble core style (the feeling of improvisation, the hand held camera, the low budget look), and possibly because it isn’t about the same olds, same olds usually found in these sorts of films (including, for me, The Puffy Chair, also by the Duplass Brothers, which in full faith and disclosure was one of those films I didn’t care for), all I could think is that it’s amazing what one can do with this style when you have a good script and even better actors.
Cyrus (Jonah Hill) is the son of Molly (Marisa Tomei), a widow who has perhaps grown a bit too close to her offspring. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Cyrus has grown too close to his mother. Molly still goes out and tries to live her own life, keeping herself open to a new romance. Meanwhile, though Cyrus has reached the age where most kids have fled their home for saner pastures, he’s holding on to the homestead with all the tenacity of a farmer threatened by cattle barons in a studio western of the old days. The cowboy who wants to cut down all the barbed wire Cyrus has put up is John (John C. Reilly), a sad sack downer of a person who has never recovered from his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) leaving him and who left because, well, he’s kind of a sad sack downer of a person. But there’s no hard feelings. Jamie’s the one who gets John to go to the party where he meets Molly who rescues John from an evening where he’s flummoxed from one embarrassing scene to another with all the geeky, yet balletic, beauty of a Woody Allen (and who’d have thought one would ever want to hear the song Don’t You Want Me, Baby again). When Cyrus meets John, it becomes take no prisoners as the two fight to the death (almost literarily at one point) over Molly’s attention.
Cyrus is very funny in one of those dark, edgy, almost sick comic ways. In other words, it’s my cup of tea, Sweet ‘n Low laced with a bit of arsenic. The direction, by the Duplass brothers, is very clever. They have a habit of pushing the camera in just at the right moment to take advantage of a funny moment, almost like a laugh track (which should be a negative, but here just seems to add a punch line to a punch line). The camera almost never seems to be on the person talking, but almost invariably on the person reacting as the other person talks, the last place you would think one would want the focus to be. Yet, this decision is one of the sources of all the humor. Of course, it helps to have a great reactor in Reilly, one of our finest character actors, supported more than ably by Tomei and Keener. The weak one of the bunch is perhaps Jonah Hill, but he fights to his last bated breath to keep up with the others and doesn’t let the movie down. I’m also not convinced that Reilly’s character is totally consistent. John starts out as a person who’s every waking hour seems to suggest a person out of his depth; then he meets Molly and he becomes one of the most brilliant strategists since Napoleon. But if he’s not consistent, Reilly does too brilliant a job of covering it up. In fact, the whole thing feels a bit shaggy dog, as shaggy dog as Reilly looks. Cyrus may be caustic, but so oft is the course of true love. And when the last frame vanishes from the screen one is a tad verklempt at the possibility of two lonely people finding each other.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is awesome. It’s amazing. It’s even better than that: it’s swell. If it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s certainly one of the most fun. Scott is a guitarist in a band who is fake dating a seventeen year old high school student; who lives and sleeps in the same bed as his gay friend; who hasn’t been able to get over his last girlfriend, who is now the lead singer of the next big band; and who falls hopelessly in love with Ramona Flowers, a woman hopelessly out of his league. Just a typical day for the new generation, apparently, since no one seems that surprised at his predicament. Ramona, in turn, does begin to fall for Scott’s lack of charm (he’s the nicest person she’s ever dated, normally the kiss of death in any relationship, but here it actually seems to work in Scott’s favor, who knew?). But in order to win Ramona’s hand in dating, Scott has to defeat in battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends, something he starts doing before he even realizes that that’s what he’s doing.
Of course, Scott is not battling her exes. He’s actually defeating the baggage they left her with. It’s a metaphor. In fact, the movie is nothing but one huge metaphor. Almost everything is both literal and symbolic. Scott must defeat the bad effect Ramona’s exes had on her in order to free her up to love him. The real scary part is how accurate a metaphor this is for love. One doesn’t have to win the present, one also has to defeat the past, which is much more difficult. And it’s all played out metaphorically in which each battle is one level of a video game with each level becoming more and more difficult. The fights are battles right out of Asian anime: love’s a game and a battlefield at the same time.
It would be interesting to know how much the look of the film came from the director Edgar Wright; the screenplay by Wright and Michael Bacall; or the source material, a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It would be very difficult for me to believe that the style of the movie didn’t come directly from the graphic novels themselves. The movie uses every CGI trick in the book. Scott hits his head on a telephone pole and the word “thunk” appears on the screen (Holy insert, Batman); his 17 year old fake girlfriend says she loves him and the word comes out of her mouth like a smoke ring and he bats it away before it can reach him; Scott opens a door and he’s across town; people leap at each other like an animated version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; defeated characters turn into coins worth points in a game; swords appear inside Scott. It’s like Annie Hall on acid. But it works and when Scott and Ramona find each other at the finale, one feels like the two have earned their happy ending. Some have commented that this approach overshadowed the emotion of the story. I disagree. For me, Wright and Bacall found the perfect balance to showmanship and emotional empathy.
Most of the criticism of Scott… has focused on Scott, or actually, Michael Cera, who plays Scott, as perhaps not the best choice for the role. And I can’t say I disagree with them. Cera has a rather nerdy look and his humor comes from underplaying his emotions and talking out of the corner of his mouth. He’s not the most dynamic of personalities, which is actually the key to his comic timing and success. But it is a bit hard to believe that Ramona would ever give him the time of day. She is truly out of his league. The role might have worked better with someone more like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also has a slight nerdy look (at least if he wants to have it), but is a much stronger performer. At the same time, Cera commits himself to the role and the directors and writers have so tailored it to his abilities, that Cera never actually hurts the movie and his droll, dry, arid delivery gets more than its fair share of laughs. The best performance in the whole movie is probably given by Kieran Culkin, though, as Wallace, Scott’s friend who has allowed Scott half his bed and residency in his extremely small studio apartment. It’s probably also one of the best written gay characters in American movies in some time. It also shows where modern society is when a straight man can share a bed with a gay man without any fear of being called queer, yet at the same time can ask Wallace not to stick around the night Scott has Ramona over for fear Wallace might gay up the place (and then in actually, it’s Scott who’s the real danger of gaying it all up). This is the real threat to Prop 8.