Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A)

The Hot Fuzz director’s latest is both fastidious and funny, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A)
dir: Edgar Wright

Plenty of films have sought to reproduce the pleasures particular to reading a comic book, listening to a favourite rock band or getting hopped up on video games. Until Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, no single work has tried to evoke these sensations simultaneously, and with good reason: the combination suggests a migraine rather than a movie. But in the hands of the British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), the effect is a larky kind of overkill. Your eyes are saturated but you don't feel bludgeoned; the film's too-muchness becomes part of its joke.

Wright keeps the tone daft and weightless, in tribute to his picture's hero. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old Canadian bass player with a sizeable ego, little apparent talent and a doting high-school girlfriend called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Adapting Bryan Lee O'Malley's spry graphic novels for the big screen, Wright is pedantically faithful to the ephemera of the page. On-screen sounds retain their onomatopoeic residue - a ringing doorbell leaves the words "Ding dong" hanging in the air. "Love" appears in pink powdery dust when Knives sighs at Scott, only for him to brush it away disdainfully like cigar smoke.

His head has been turned by the arrival in Toronto of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a super-cool roller-skating courier. If Scott can ditch Knives, he might have a future with Ramona. Trouble is, she has a colourful past. Instead of merely overcoming the insecurity he feels about his new girlfriend's old flames, Scott must do battle with seven of them in turn. These martial-arts confrontations are framed in the vocabulary of video games: there are mid-air fisticuffs where the loser combusts into a shower of coins. Victory is heralded by a satisfying jangling, like coming up cherries on a fruit machine.

Watching someone else play a video game ranks only slightly higher on my list of enjoyable experiences than treading on an upturned plug or listening to Libby Purves. But Wright plays the action sequences as slapstick crescendos. One minute the characters are whining and bickering, the next Scott is being hurled through walls. The joke lies in how nonchalant everyone seems. No one questions where Scott, who can't even be bothered to hang up his coat, finds the powers necessary to soar into the air and land a haymaker on the mouth of a flying Bollywood assassin. And for all Wright's stylistic deference to video games and comics, none of the characters has much time for either. These are simply the marinades in which their young lives have been soaked.

In the picture's fastidious direction and editing, Wright confirms his place as Britain's Wes Anderson, or a comedy Kubrick. Both those directors have been known to plan all the fun out of a gag, but so far Wright's controlling tendencies are working in his favour. He sets up pomposity just to puncture it: a breakneck montage of Scott preparing for his final battle grinds to a deflated halt when this supposed action hero takes an age tying his shoelaces.

This is the director's first film outside the UK, and it's possible to pine for the cultural frisson of Hot Fuzz, where a Hollywood-style shoot-out flares up at a rural branch of Somerfield. But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is still a dizzying advance and Wright's confidence comes through in the way he balances visual extravagance with comic intimacy. Each member of the large cast is given some killer lines and some memorable shtick; it's like a revue in which everyone gets their go. And no matter how extreme this alternative world becomes, it retains a soulful tactility. After a hole has been torn in the roof of a nightclub during a spectacular fight, you can't help but coo at the Toronto snow falling into the revellers' hair.

If the film has a weak link, it is Ramona, who is more of an embodiment of cool than a plausible character. The unspoken truth of the film is that Scott should really be with Stacey (Anna Kendrick), the coffee-shop barista who is every bit as sassy as he imagines Ramona to be.Unfortunately, Stacey is also his sister, and the world may not be ready for Scott Pilgrim vs. the Laws of Man and Nature.

Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide