Why Did Scott Pilgrim Tank?

The Expendables was the top grossing movie over the weekend, raking in $35 million, and beating out Eat Pray Love‘s $23.7 million. The Other Guys finished at third, with $18 million, followed by Inception at $11.4 million and, somewhat astonishingly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at $10.5 million. The results have caused some to scratch their heads, while others have reacted with the fury of an aging FOX News anchor just a few steak dinners short of a myocardial infarction.

Scott Pilgrim‘s box office failure over the weekend has little to do with Jeffrey Wells‘s deranged dichotomy of “the rank-and-file” warring with “the elite geek-dweeb set” — an impractical characterization that one expects from a paranoid schizophrenic looking for a few magic beans that will grow a tin foil vine. But it was evident from some of the film’s early reviews that the old reactionary guard — which included the hysterical Wells and the frumpy David Edelstein — were going to trash the movie for its audacious syntax — namely, the very visual language that allowed Kick-Ass to make nearly $20 million in its opening weekend back in April.

I don’t think the lackluster business had much to do with Michael Cera. But it’s worth observing that Cera has yet to prop up a phenomenally successful Hollywood movie on his presence alone. He’s found commercial success as a supporting character, although Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a $10 million movie that grossed $33.5 million, might qualify as a modest success. But when one considers that Scott Pilgrim‘s budget was closer to $100 million, the decision to use Superbad/Juno momentum as a selling point wasn’t terribly wise. Cera, assuming audiences haven’t tired of him by now, will probably be just fine if he can figure out a way to reinvent his one-note Williamsburg hipster schtick and keep his acting roles confined to second bananas. The man lacks leading man gravitas, and now has the commercial track record to prove it.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Cera can’t entirely be blamed for Scott Pilgrim‘s failure. One only needs to look at the moronic marketing quacks who pushed this movie as if they were lame ducks. Not only did the film’s bright red poster do everything possible to occlude Cera’s presence in the movie, but it failed to communicate what the movie was about. The “epic of epic epicness” tagline tells someone in the dark nothing at all about Scott Pilgrim. And you have to wonder how much money some Universal wordsmith was paid to whip up such anti-commercial inanity.

The first big mistake made by Universal — and there were many — was in failing to market this as a quirky date movie that a young couple might agree upon. (Or perhaps not. Abigail Nussbaum has offered a provocative post suggesting that Scott Pilgrim is misogynistic.)

The second big mistake was in opening Scott Pilgrim during a weekend in which the audience division came down to gender lines. If you were a man, you were expected to see The Expendables. If you were a woman, you were expected to see Eat Pray Love. The Expendables Call to Arms trailer, released a good month before the movie, permitted enough time for these demographic lines to become fixed. And Universal, rather catastrophically, failed to create a Scott Pilgrim trailer that used the movie’s humor as a self-deprecatory selling point to avoid both movies. (I should also point out that, despite my numerous requests to attend a New York press screening, Universal publicists failed to respond by telephone or email. This is not something I can say about the people at Lionsgate, who were very quick to respond, extremely friendly and accommodating. Guess which film received a 1,400 word essay here.)

While it’s true that Scott Pilgrim received a big Comic-Con buzz, it’s very clear that this didn’t translate into mass moviegoers paying to see the flick. It’s also clear from both Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass‘s respective takes that a more daring comic book movie isn’t going to translate into an Iron Man 2-style box office bonanza, even as audiences have signaled their desire to be challenged by plot-heavy movies like Inception. A risk-taking comic book movie with a $20 million budget can certainly make a healthy profit, but it’s a harder sell at four or five times the budget. This weekend certainly isn’t the end of movies like Scott Pilgrim. Just don’t expect future movies of this type to have large budgets or originate from the studio system in a good long while. Indeed, had Scott Pilgrim not been up against two pandering movies, it might have attracted more of the crowd. But apparently there’s gold to be panned when you use the Internet to pigeonhole prospective moviegoers into predictable demographics.

Review: Youth in Revolt (2009)

Michael Cera, a reedy actor known for grilling his thin mix of thespic tricks into crepe-like pipsqueaks quietly braying the predictable coups de foudre, is not necessarily a man to be disliked. But there doesn’t seem to be a filmmaker with the guts to discourage his predictable instincts.

Miguel Arteta would seem to be that man. The director has served up a commendable body of work (the underrated Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and episodes of Six Feet Under and The Office) reflecting his knack for getting quirky and engaging performances from his cast. But it does not follow that, just because you affix a beret and a moustache onto Cera’s boyish poise, you will be guaranteed a performance that treads beyond established terrain. These sartorial embellishments, which emerge with Cera’s unconvincing puffs at jaspers, are intended to create an imaginary alter ego to Cera’s established protagonist. But the results demonstrate that Cera lacks the possibilities of an Elijah Wood, coaxed into enjoyable cartoonish viciousness by Sin City‘s Robert Rodriguez.

The Cera predicament is especially troubling for Arteta’s latest film, Youth in Revolt, which, my Cera criticisms aside, is a fairly engaging diversion — one that caused me to laugh, even when the needlessly condescending interstitials (various animations, disastrously calculated to appeal to some misunderstood Williamsburg demographic) threatened to uproot the delicious anarchy buried beneath. These concessional interludes caused me to wonder whether a few nonconformist kinks were ironed out during the reported reshoots early last year, and whether a more dangerous film, truer to C.D. Payne’s subversive source material, was lurking under the restitched seams. The film business, being as secretive and as protective as it is, will no doubt stay mum on this point.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a teenager who is “a voracious reader of classic prose” and who likes Frank Sinatra. He complains that he lives “in a city filled with women who have zero interest in me” (honestly, in Berkeley?) and is mercilessly ridiculed when he rents La Strada from a video store. His mother has a taste for dumbbell fuck buddies (the first played by Zach Galifianakis, a noisy neo-Belushi whose supporting comedic turns I am becoming rather fond of). The promised Summer of ’42 moment emerges with a girl named Sheeni Saunders (played winningly by relative newcomer Portia Doubleday), who takes to Twisp’s naive disposition and expands her lips further after he unleashes an alter ego: a lumpen lothario named Francois Dillinger, the alter ego I quibbled with above.

Dillinger persuades Twisp to do bad things. Arson with $8 million in damages. A ruse involving sleeping pills. All in the service of winning Sheeni’s heart with dangerous behavior. Much of this is fun, but Cera’s plodding one-note performance prevents this gleeful mayhem from living up to the disastrous possibilities of a Frank Oz-directed comedy.

It is troubling that Arteta casts so many of his supporting actors right, while failing to elicit much out of Cera. Adhir Kaylan nearly steals the movie as Twisp’s pal, Vijay, imbuing his character with romantic neuroses that are far more plausible than anything Cera has to offer. Fred Willard is cast as a naive and burned out activist, and demonstrates once again that he’s brilliant at getting inside the surprisingly dimensional mentality of a clueless buffoon. I failed to mention that Jean Smart, who can do little wrong, plays Twisp’s mom. Even Steve Buscemi manages to show up as Twisp’s dad.

There are also some amusing oddball moments, such as Sheeni’s father revealed to be a lawyer, who proceeds to cite conditional legalese when Twisp arrives to hang out with Sheeni. Sheeni’s family lives in a preposterously baroque trailer with multiple floors. And in a surreal flourish, a car, for reasons that I won’t divulge, is trapped within the Twisp living room.

Many of these eccentricities existed in Payne’s novels, and they have been adapted well by screenwriter Gustin Nash (and uncredited polisher Mike White) into the requirements of cinema. It’s just too bad that Cera isn’t up to the material’s feral exigencies, and that Arteta (or some other unknown production force) has neutered the promise of a teen comedy as reinterpreted by Preston Sturges. This film is very good in spots, but why diminish the insanity?