By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; C01
The simultaneous arrival this weekend of "The Expendables" and "Eat Pray Love" is being cast in some quarters as the cinematic version of the battle of the sexes. Which demographic will prove more powerful at the box office -- the guys flocking to the macho mayhem of "a film by Sylvester Stallone"? Or the women Julia Roberts is counting on to lap up her movie version of the best-selling book?
But the showdown may prove to be misframed, because "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," a movie Sly and Julia fans most likely have never heard of, is likely to split the difference. As a third-party candidate wildly popular with young fans of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, "Scott Pilgrim" has every chance to siphon off precious teenage boys who would otherwise see "The Expendables" with their dads, or girls who might choose its wispy-voiced star, Michael Cera, over "Eat Pray Love's" Javier Bardem. (Their loss, am I right, ladies?)
Each of these films amply rewards its core constituencies. "The Expendables," which Stallone co-wrote, directed and stars in, traffics in all of the tough-guy trash talk and hyperbolic action that viewers would expect from the man who brought us "Rocky" and "Rambo."
The movie's best set piece -- when Stallone's character literally catches a plane as it embarks on a perilous water takeoff, then strafes a nearby pier and reduces it to a huge burning cinder -- inspired whoops of approval at a recent screening. Later in the movie, when Terry Crews blasts a guy's head off in an elegantly silhouetted shot, the crowd burst into disbelieving laughter. From its cartoony violence (there's actually very little blood seen in "The Expendables," although you can hear it spurt, squish and gurgle) to a summit meeting of Stallone and two superannuated action stars, the movie veers recklessly and hilariously between hardboiled action and pure camp.
Stallone, Crews and their co-stars Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li play a group of mercenaries hired for a tough assignment in the South American jungle. As a mythic hero quest stripped to its most elemental essentials, "The Expendables" displays its own crude but legible command of the genre's symbolic language -- the motorcycles, tattoos, guns and knives, those Freudian cigars. The finer things are left on the killing-room floor.
"Why are you here?" someone asks Stallone at one point. "I just am," he replies in the perfect summation of the film's combination of admirable simplicity and sheer idiocy.
As a director, Stallone subscribes simply to the more-is-more school of filmmaking. The same could be said of Edgar Wright, who has won a cult following thanks to his comedies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," and who has adapted "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" with the same attention to fetishistic details of archaic video games, TV sitcoms and B-movie genres as Stallone pays to his ordnance. Cera plays the title character, a 22-year-old musician who falls in love with a rainbow-haired hipster girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and must do battle with her seven exes to win her affection. The movie, a glib pastiche of pop culture references and snarky asides, plays like one long, insufferable in-joke.
Cera's dilated, wispy-voiced version of the leading man at first seems like a welcome relief from Stallone and Co.'s pumped-and-plumped aesthetic (a healthy dose of collagen apparently having been added to the aging actors' steroids). But as Cera kicks and quips his way through Pilgrim's progress, with Wright slicing and dicing the screen image into comic-book-ready panels, complete with on-screen titles and graphics, "Scott Pilgrim" becomes an increasingly cynical enterprise.
For all his feigned innocence, Pilgrim is less a deer in the headlights than an outright weasel, and Winstead's Ramona Flowers makes an unusually chilly femme fatale. "Scott Pilgrim" has the feel of a slickly packaged, over-produced bauble for a youth market bored to tears by human feeling. By the climactic confrontation in a cavernous nightclub, the audience's reaction echoes the password Pilgrim uttered to get in: "Whatever."'Eat Pray Love'
As a portrait of a middle-aged quest for relevance, "Eat Pray Love" has more in common with "The Expendables" than "Scott Pilgrim," but it hews just as faithfully to a specific grammar. Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, whose memoir of her disastrous divorce, painful rebound relationship and subsequent search for spiritual meaning in Italy, India and Bali became a blockbuster success. "Language, gelato and spaghetti" are tantamount to Stallone's bullets, blades and things that go boom as Gilbert embarks on her sojourn in Rome, where she learns Italian and obeys the timeless order to "mangia! mangia!" And director Ryan Murphy dutifully offers plenty of mouth-watering shots of pasta, pizza and a hedonistic lunch of asparagus and boiled eggs, which Roberts savors while wearing lingerie a friend urged her to buy "for you, Liz, just for you."
As a heroine, Liz Gilbert joins Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City" and blogger Julie Powell of "Julie & Julia" as a peculiarly 21st-century heroine, ideally suited for an age that has taken self-absorption to new levels. But Roberts -- who in "Eat Pray Love" cries almost as often as she flashes that still-winning smile -- tones down Gilbert's most self-congratulatory excesses, delivering a warm and largely vanity-free performance. What's more, she surrounds herself with a consistently terrific supporting players, including Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins and Bardem, who as the seductive Brazilian businessman Gilbert meets in Bali matches that country's breathtaking scenery beat for smoldering beat.
"Eat Pray Love" provides attractive illustration, if not illumination, to a love story that's more about romancing the I than the guy. (We're never quite clear on why Gilbert was so miserable in her marriage, unless a husband wanting to go back to school counts as an irreconcilable difference.) But as a parable of travel and transformation, it remains strangely inert, consisting largely of Roberts looking beatific, sad or slightly self-pitying as she offers narrated insights that invariably begin with "A friend once told me . . . "
And those voice-overs may be the most telling signifiers in "Eat Pray Love," far more meaningful than even the perfect slice of pizza the author finds in Naples. While Gilbert may be less shallow than Carrie in "Sex and the City" and less gratingly whiny than Julie in "Julie & Julia," she's still a character who can only be revealed not through action but endless explanation and self-examination. Even Gilbert's adventures -- learning Italian, perfecting her meditation, studying with an elderly Indonesian healer -- are portrayed not as mythic tests but as things that happen to her.
Thus is the classic hero quest attenuated into "the physics of the quest," which as Roberts describes in that ever-present narration sounds like passively going with the flow. "Eat Pray Love" talks the talk, but it's the Stallones and Scott Pilgrims of the world who still get to walk the walk (and fly the plane and play the bass). For years women have tried to find their voice in Hollywood; now, with few exceptions, that seems to be the only thing they're left with.
(103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some profanity.
Eat Pray Love
(133 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong profanity, some sexual references and male rear nudity.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
(108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, profanity and drug references.