Director Edgar Wright has had a strong showing in films so far. He burst onto the scene with his romantic comedy (with zombies) Shaun of the Dead. This was followed up with the British spoof of American action movies Hot Fuzz. For his third foray into film Wright has left England and his usual on screen partner behind to tell a story of two twenty somethings in love in Canada. Oh and there’s also huge fights and a ton of video game references.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera of Superbad,) who is frankly a slacker. Scott plays bass in a band that rarely plays a gig, mooches of his roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin from Cider House Rules) and is dating a high school girl named Knives Cho (played by newcomer Ellen Wong) for no clear reason other than to say that he’s dating a high school girl. But things take a turn when Scott dreams of and then meets in the flesh Ramona Flowers (Live Free or Die Hard‘s Mary Elizabeth Winstead.) Scott quickly (and awkwardly) tries to woo Ramona, and with a little work there is a bond between the couple that forms. However this means that Scott has caught the attention of Ramona’s seven evil exes who are now determined to take Scott down for good. So now Scott must fight his way through a succession of evil exes, working his way up to the dreaded Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman of TV’s Bored to Death) and he begins to wonder if this girl is really worth all the trouble and risk to his life.
It’s difficult to describe what makes Scott Pilgrim vs. the World unique as it’s almost all in how the film is presented visually. The movie takes a great many cues (plus lots of references and inside jokes) from video games. The fights with evil exes effectively serves as boss battles. When defeated the evil exes even dissolve into coins and display a certain number of points earned. The fights are over the top, with characters thrown across parking lots into buildings, battling each other in mid air, performing “64 hit combos” and summoning “demon hipster chicks.” Again very much like a video game. Not all of the visual cues come from video games, more than a few reveal the movie’s comic book roots (the film is based on the comic book Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley.) There are many sound effects that have on screen words accompanying them, as one would see in a comic book. So when a character rings a doorbell the words “ding dong” appear on the screen in time with the sounds. Whenever Scott and his band play there are white lighting style lines coming from their instruments, much in the way one would try to show music in a comic book. It may take some viewers a few minutes to get into the swing of the visuals (and those who aren’t from a video gaming generation may never completely get it.) However by the end the visual presentation is no longer a novelty and is simply the way the story is being told. By the time the film is done it all feels very natural and right.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is cast extremely well. Michael Cera is just the right mix of awkward and endearing. He also makes a surprisingly believable fighter, which given his gangly stature is no small accomplishment. Many of the best jokes get delivered by Kieran Culkin as Wallace or Anna Kendrick (from Up in the Air) who plays Scott’s frequently frustrated sister. First time film actress Ellen Wong is a bubbling little cauldron of energy as Knives Cho and she makes a character that could have been grating wonderfully fun to watch. The evil exes are also quite a great deal of fun. Jason Schwartzman is perfectly smarmy as Gideon Graves, but some of the earlier exes are just as memorable. In particular Chris Evans (of the upcoming Captain America movie) and Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) as a gravely voiced action star and a psychically powered vegan respectively both come close to stealing the movie (and probably would have had their roles lasted longer.) Many of the actors actually have to play very low key emotions (as the bigger emotions are actually played out through combat) but everybody brings a great deal of energy and that is evident even when it’s bottled up.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does have some issues lurking below the well timed gags and pop art visuals, mainly to do with the fundamentals of the story. Scott’s infatuation with Ramona is very much a spur of the moment thing, just a guy falling for the “cool girl” and in a way seems under-motivated given the lengths that Scott goes to trying to win her heart. Scott himself is also frankly kind of a jerk (even though he doesn’t really mean to be) particularly in how he handles his transition from dating Knives to dating Ramona. This aspect gets a bit a reprieve by the end though as Scott is forced to face his own actions and choices. Also while the visual style of the film never gets dull there are moments when some of the characters do. This stems from the fact that nearly every character is a hipster. The result is a large cast comprised mainly of disaffected youth who seem unimpressed by life in general. There are moments when that cold sarcasm of hipsters plays very well for laughs and other times when it becomes slightly grating. Though admittedly that may stem from my own personal dislike of hipsters (these are characters that I enjoy on film but would avoid like the plague in reality.)
While there are some cracks in the foundation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the film is still entertaining, funny and visually very clever. This truly is a film that lives and dies by it’s visuals, though I would not go so far as to call it style over substance. It’s just that what makes the movie unique is the way that it is presented on the screen, and that more than anything is what makes it worth seeing. There really isn’t another film out there like this and it deserves to be seen and enjoyed.
Final Score: 4 out of 5