Well I finally managed to get around to seeing “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, and the question that was on my mind when I started watching was “why did this movie do badly?” It had huge geek buzz, made an enormous splash at ComiCon, and was being touted as the “cannot fail” movie of the summer. And yet it tanked.
But the reason it fails is immediately obvious…
That’s it. The casting of the lead. I’ll grant you that the film is, in its editing, fairly unusual. The narrative can be a bit confusing initially, and it takes some time to become acclimated to the idea that we’re operating in a sort of alternate video-game universe (though I’m so far out of the movie’s demographic that I’m probably not competent to render an opinion). Now, in a few years, I don’t think folks will have a problem with this style, but at the moment it’s nascent, and the audience hasn’t really transferred the conventions of game narratives to passive entertainment. My guess is that people will eventually look back at this movie and consider it ground-breaking. The style is just running a few steps ahead of the zeitgeist.
But I’m also certain that folks will look back at this film and recognize that casting Cera in the lead was a horrible error, on par with the voice-overs that the studio demanded be appended to “Blade Runner” back in the day. While there can be little doubt that the film got green-lit partly because of Cera’s involvement, that’s just a clear indicator that the studio was imposing its perception of what a “lead geek” should be.
The basic mistake is that the “normal” folks running productions have a vision of what a geek is. Heck, maybe even Winter has a vision of the archetypical geek. What they didn’t get is that geeks *do not perceive themselves as geeks*. Geeks do not feel awkward, even though they are awkward. What they feel is that they’re normal, that they’re no different from the popular crowd, except that for some mysterious reason they’re not part of that crowd, and it makes them sad and/or pissed-off.
Geeks feel just as embarrassed by Scott Pilgrim’s ineptitude as normal folks do. They just don’t find any humor in it. The Borat-loving crowd may get a certain amount of amusement out of watching a geek fail, but they’re not going to emphasize with that character. Geeks watching a dude like Pilgrim just squirm – it’s too close to home.
And so Scott Pilgrim, while managing to be a cool movie, does not provide a cool central character.
Now let me get all writer-ish about this for a moment, because this is a really complicated problem to solve. These guys needed to create a character who was both a geek and an awesome dude. They needed to convince us to respect the guy even while he was bumbling about, make us feel sympathetic to his inability to connect to the *girl of his dreams*. And here’s the painful thing – they really managed to pull it off from a writing perspective…
And then some asshole decided that they needed to cast Michael Cera in the lead because he’s been typed as a geek. And that he needed to play to form as an uber geek.
Big. Freaking. Mistake.
What they needed to do was cast someone who was absolutely not a geek. If I had access to a time machine I’d have cast freakin’ Christian Slater – from the “Heathers” era – in the lead. They needed a lead who absolutely oozed coolness but “didn’t realize it”. Hell, I have a vague suspicion that Brandon (“It’s not my fault they cast me as Superman”) Routh was Winter’s original choice for the lead but got nixed and relegated to a lesser role. That would have worked amazingly well.
But instead, we get an actor who is so viscerally ineffective as a human being that we can’t accept his transformation.
Here’s the big secret… Geeks do not see themselves as un-cool. They see themselves as misunderstood. In their minds’ eye they’re Jedi freakin’ Knights who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They’re absolutely not thinking of themselves as lame assed losers. And this is where Hollywood goes totally wrong in doing geek-centric movies, ultimately managing to alienate both the mainstream audience and the ComiCon crowd.
You can call this the “Peter Parker Phenomenon” if you like because Toby McGuire managed to pull off this transformation in “Spiderman”. A guy who starts off as a lame-assed-twit and, by the end of the movie, manages to transform himself into an awesome SOB. Cera, sadly, does not have the range or ability to affect the same transformation (nor does Winter have the capacity to fake it in post). Result? Lame dude is still lame after the climax (and we even get a scene where his sorta-ex-girlfriend has to prompt him to do what he should by now be doing for himself – I *do* blame the writers for that bit of business by the way, but then again they may have had no choice in writing it).
Bottom line – Scott Pilgrim could have been a blockbuster. All it needed was a strong lead actor who could pull off “unintentionally un-cool” for the first half and then drop that affectation for the second half. Instead they cast someone who remains one-hundred-percent-un-cool throughout, and so the film dove into the ground at a thousand miles an hour.
I should mention that I have exactly the same issue with “Kick Ass”, but that movie managed to overcome the limitation simply by abandoning the geeky lead entirely in the second half, changing gears so that the twelve-year-old “Hit Girl” suddenly becomes the protagonist. Structurally a total gum-up, but it rescued the movie. “Scott Pilgrim” was not so fortunate.