The campy comedy ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is whiz-bang fun, while the studied romanticism of Julia’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ lacks passion

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Scott Pilgrim
POW! BAM! | Combining the campy fun of a gay comedy with the frenetic editing of an action film and stylized look of a graphic novel, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ may be the sleeper of the summer.

Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

Michael Cera’s progression from endearingly awkward teen into young adulthood has made him decidedly less endearing. The halting, fumbling shtick that served him so well in Arrested Development, Juno and even Superbad established a unique style — he is his own adjective: Cera-ish — but it has grown old, and quick. Gimmicky stuff, that, like a magician with only one hat trick.

It doesn’t help that, as a 22-year-old dime-store lothario with superhero powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his body is shapeless, with the muscle tone of an 11-year-old girl. His awkwardness is now downright ugly, like a weird hybrid of Stephen Hawking and some severe flightless waterfowl. It gets to the point were, if he were to stand on one leg and bury his head in the sand, everything would seem to make more sense.

But — and, as with Oprah, it’s a big “but” — you somehow manage to get beyond the uncomfortable feelings of watching him and enjoy director Edgar Wright’s quirky, high-speed fantasy romance. All despite Cera. Even though he’s kinda good in it. I know. It’s complicated.

So is the film, which is one of its many delights. Wright co-wrote and directed the Simon Pegg comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the latter of which may be the best genre film of its kind in the last decade. (It helps that there are few “of its kind:” It’s a bucolic cop-buddy-horror comedy, and completely brilliant.) There, Wright used Weed Whacker editing to highlight but also undermine the extreme violence. Scott Pilgrim, by contrast, takes its PG-13 rating and stylized action to look like a mild, mid-‘80s video game. It’s just as frenetic, but so whimsical as to be cartoonish. The entire film has “cult status” written all over it. Think Heathers for guys. Think Judd Apatow without the fart jokes.

Cartoonish isn’t far from true: This may be the best film yet based on a graphic novel. Scott (Cera) is a Toronto kid reveling in his post-high school status as a would-be Wooderson, romancing teenaged girls while pining for his ex, who went from nobody to Gwen Stefani superstar overnight. Scott has now set his sights on Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a punkish girl with a past. That past includes seven exes (including a lesbian dalliance), who unite in an evil league to fight to the death anyone who tries to date her. And that’s Scott.

All of the battle sequences take on their own tone, from Bollywood production number to Battle Arena Toshinden showdown to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? catfight. Are all these events real or imaginary? Is the action, a la Ally McBeal, all inside Scott’s head or are ordinary folks vested with magic powers? Best to forget the logic of the film, which toggles breathlessly between fantasy and reality, and enjoy instead its giddy, camp energy.

This may also be the most mainstream teen comedy with off-handed gay-positive content to emerge from Hollywood. As Scott’s best friend and roommate Wallace — a gay predator who “converts” straight boys (and who platonically shares his bed with Scott) — Kieran Culkin may be the most well-adjusted and reliable character in the film, a testament to the abiding normalcy of homosexuality today.

Call it progress, call it funny, but call on it. Scott Pilgrim takes on the world and wins. And we are better for it.

Eat Pray Love
ALL YOU NEED | The romance feels formulaic in the lovely, glowing travelogue ‘Eat Pray Love’ with Julia Roberts and an uber-sensitive Javier Bardem.

Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco, Richard Jenkins.
Rated PG-13. 140 mins.
Now playing wide release.

There’s nothing high energy about Eat Pray Love, although it is a fantasy of its own kind nonetheless. Throughout the film, light enrobes Julia Roberts’ flaxen hair like a perpetual halo, softly caressing her dewy skin, in virtually every shot of this romance, directed and co-written by Glee creator Ryan Murphy from the best selling memoir. After half a dozen years in which she’s done mostly ensemble and supporting work, this is the chick flick that could have reintroduced Roberts as a viable leading lady.

Could have, but probably won’t. Murphy can’t really escape his TV sensibilities — despite woozy photography, luscious settings and Roberts’ star power, it still seems bound to the small screen. And with the Carrie Bradshaw-style narration, upper middle class angst and a preoccupation with exotic locales, it tips its hand another way: It’s Sexless and the City.

Eat Pray Love uses a Goldilocks plot: Liz (Roberts) isn’t happy in her marriage (who would be, if your husband were a dud like Billy Crudup?), so she sets off on a world tour to find herself: First through hedonistic pursuits in Italy, then in spiritual privation in India, and finally the “just right” beauty and peacefulness of Bali. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: It’s the definition of formulaic.

Formulas can work, of course, and in an inoffensive way, this one marginally does (as did Under the Tuscan Sun). It’s best with the “eat” part of the triumvirate. Certainly it captures the sensuality of eating in a way that made me instantly hungry.

But there’s sensual and there’s sensuous, and this movie is lacking in the latter. Most of the “love” component seems no more authentic than it did in Valentine’s Day, Roberts’ last film. James Franco, as a charming rascal who woos Liz after her breakup, seems rotely charming, as if tossled hair and a crooked smile do all the work. It’s programmatically romantic, which isn’t really romance at all.

“Pray” is even worse than “love:” The scenes of spiritual enlightenment are no more illuminating than an introductory yoga class, and Richard Jenkins, as a gruff Texan with plainspoken wisdom, merely annoys.

The most authentically delicious of the men (aside from the eye candy of a brief fling with a gigolo) is Javier Bardem as a crunchy Brazilian living in Bali. Bardem cries when he kisses his son and makes grand gestures with a full heart and you believe it in a way nothing else comes close to. He strikes the right tone: You don’t need to be teary to be heartfelt.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.