‘Scott Pilgrim’ vs. ‘The Other Guys’
'Pilgrim' brings real comedy back into theaters

by WIllie Krischke

It’s such a relief to see a wide-release, big-name comedy that isn’t about overgrown man-children. That fact alone almost justifies the existence of “The Other Guys.” Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg are the titular characters, cops who stay in the office while The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson, but I’ll always smell what the Rock’s cooking) and Samuel L. Jackson (aka Mace Wendo) are busy crashing cars into buses, shooting guns and jumping off of tall buildings … which eventually kills them. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

Will Farrell’s character, in contrast, likes paperwork. He hums as he types, most likely songs by the Little River Band. He gets excited about busting people for scaffolding violations (you know what, somebody needs to.) He is perfectly happy as a cop carrying a wooden gun. Wahlberg, on the other hand, is angry. Very angry. He accidentally shot Derek Jeter in the kneecap and is now known as “The Yankee Clipper.” He has been relegated to the desk across from Farrell’s, and he can’t stand the humming, or the reports, or watching the other guys get all the glory.

While pursuing that scaffolding violation, Ferrell and Wahlberg uncover a “real” crime – a Ponzi scheme being run by Steve Coogan. It was brave of McKay to put a complicated crime in the middle of a comedy cop caper; I’ll give him major kudos for that. In addition, it’s the kind of crime you need a cop of Farrell’s flavor to solve. The Rock would be clueless on this one. So maybe there’s a hidden message here – cops that drive Priuses are the kind we need in this day and age. There’s a reason why most FBI agents have accounting degrees.

Directed by Adam McKay, who is becoming famous for not really directing and instead just letting his actors improvise, “The Other Guys” goes off in six directions at once, making it feel a bit like a series of loosely connected Saturday Night Live sketches. Some of the bits are funny, at least for a while. A few are dead on arrival. Most of them play too long. But for the most part, I would rather watch Will Farrell mine the comic possibilities of a strait-laced guy who has no problem driving a Prius than play yet another naïve man-child.

But McKay isn’t really able to pull off a coherent plot involving a complicated financial crime, not with his principals improvising 80 percent of their scenes. I’m not sure anyone in the movie theater really understood what the villain was guilty of at the end of “The Other Guys.” McKay makes it work – or work better, at least – by making Coogan’s frauded investors scary guys with guns and helicopters. That way we can still have the chase scene at the end of the movie, like we expect at the end of cop movies, even if we’re not sure who’s chasing who, or what, or why.

While “The Other Guys” rides its jokes into the ground, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” tosses them off in such rapid succession that you’ll be hard-pressed to keep up. Snarky and clever/emo in the tradition of “Juno” and “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” this film probably wouldn’t be bearable if it took itself at all seriously. The characters are ridiculous, with their arcane video game trivia and text message lingo and It’s-Tuesday-My-Hair-Must-Be-Blue style, but they seem to know it’s all pretty ridiculous, and that makes it OK. You can laugh at them because they wish they could laugh at themselves.

Michael Cera is the titular character, a twentysomething dressed in ringer T-shirts who’s dating a high schooler named Knives and playing bass in an indie band. He doesn’t have a job, or really a future, but these don’t seem like problems so much as irrelevant facts about his life. He falls for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is awfully similar to Kat Dennings, the girl Cera fell for in “Nick and Nora,” except she has hair like Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Cera must battle Winstead’s Seven Evil Exes in order to win her heart. (There is no parsing reality from fantasy here, and director Edgar Wright convinces us there’s no need to.) The battles are creative and fantastic, combining whizz-bang martial arts action with video game special effects and Looney Toons laws of physics. The whole thing is loud and bright and fun and wonderful. I found myself wishing Winstead had 15 evil exes to fight instead of just seven.

Cera is fine in the lead, playing the same character he always plays. But what really makes “Scott Pilgrim” fun and funny isn’t Pilgrim, it’s his supporting cast. Winstead does great work to keep this movie – with all its ADD cleverness – grounded and bearable. She plays her character with a great dose of world weariness and no tolerance for BS. Kieran Culkin consistently steals scenes as Cera’s gay roommate. Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, Ellen Wong and Allison Pill all bring a great deal of energy to their supporting roles, and the end result is that the world of Scott Pilgrim feels bigger and more complex than what is needed to advance the plot.

“Pilgrim” bogs down toward its climax, as it becomes unclear just what Cera is fighting the Evil Exes for (The girl? His own self-respect? Integrity? The band? The heck of it?) And it tries too hard to cram too many moments of self-revelation and “Hey I learned a lesson!” into a story that is better when it stays punchy and quick on its feet. But in spite of its third-act pacing problems, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” pulls off its own underdog triumph: in spite of its confectionary comic book style and sensibility, it contains a surprising amount of heart and real emotional substance. Underneath the retro T-shirts, skinny jeans and purple hair are real people, struggling to deal with their emotional baggage and figure out how to make a relationship work. This is the best comedy of the summer. •