“A giddy, hyperkinetic, over-stylized barrage of video game, comic book and pop culture references in all the best ways, the film barrels out of the gate immediately and almost never lets up.”
Film: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzmann
Written by: Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Genre: Action, comedy, romance, 8-bit nostalgia, (almost) flawless victory
Rating: 9 out of 10 / A
Review by: Johnny M
WARNING!!! CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE MOVIE AND THE GRAPHIC NOVELS!
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) has a precious little life. A 20-something slacker in Toronto, he has a strange but chaste relationship with 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), lives with gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and plays bass in an indie band called Sex Bob-omb. His semi-comfortable existence is upended when Scott starts dreaming about a mysterious girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After seeing her at a party in real life, he’s instantly smitten and the two begin to date. However, in order to win Ramona’s heart, Scott needs to defeat her seven evil exes—including a Hollywood action hero, a super-powered vegan rock star and a vengeful ex-girlfriend—in epic video game-styled battles.
Based on the award-winning series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim is (as the movie posters say) “an epic of epic epicness.” Honestly, that’s the best way to describe it. A giddy, hyperkinetic, over-stylized barrage of video game, comic book and pop culture references in all the best ways, the film barrels out of the gate immediately and almost never lets up. It’s a thrill ride and a heady trip all at once, an entry to a world where enemies explode into coins when defeated and personal baggage takes on a very real, literal form.
Edgar Wright has already proven himself to be a witty, adept mixmaster of a director—having fused rom-coms with zombies in Shaun Of The Dead and gleefully sending up every action film ever made with Hot Fuzz—and his gifts here are perfectly suited to the material. The novels combine everything from classic Nintendo graphics to physics-defying manga battles, while also including memorable, complex characters. Wright (and co-writer Michael Bacall) score massive points for keeping that balance of real world and fantasy while not making it seem oppressive or forced. When Speed Racer tried a similar style, it just ended up as a candy-colored migraine. But Wright keeps the film even and exciting, wonderfully integrating the video game references into a shared, highly acceptable kind of reality.
And it definitely is a heightened, altered state world we find Scott Pilgrim in. Most characters are introduced with a descriptive box of stats; Scott’s fights include reversals and 64-hit combos; and sound effects are spelled out on screen ala the 1960s Batman series. This is the world as Scott—and the countless others his age who grew up on video games and anime—see the world. That’s what makes the constant graphics acceptable: this is Scott’s filter, his coping mechanism. Scott’s the hero of his own video game, and part of his character is realizing what that means and how he can develop himself in that context.
Scott isn’t a perfect character by any stretch of the imagination: he’s unambitious, easily discouraged, and he has a tendency to panic and hesitate when not dealing with Mortal Kombat-style battles, to say nothing of his obvious “unreliable narrator” status. Still, he has a charm about him in the novels, something which doesn’t always come off in Michael Cera’s performance. Cera is mostly OK as Scott, but Cera plays Scott Pilgrim if Scott Pilgrim were Michael Cera. He has the demeanor down, and he says the words right, but the film Scott is a tad too neutered. If there’s any flaw to the film, it’s Cera not quite bringing his full game. In the novels, Scott’s not only dating Knives then Ramona, but has to deal with the fallout of his own past with ex-girlfriend and current pop star Envy Adams (played deliciously by Brie Larson) and his high school fling with Sex Bob-omb drummer Kim Pine (a pitch perfect Alison Pill). The novel Scott is almost O’Malley’s parody of the “magical girlfriend” convention of anime/manga series like Tenchi-Muyo or Urusei Yatsura. Here, there doesn’t see to be anything about Scott that would make us believe his exes would pile up so quickly.
If Cera isn’t quite perfect, the rest of the cast is 100% exactly right. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a great Ramona: detached but approachable, hip and cool, but still conflicted and full of self-doubt. Anna Kendrick, as Scott’s voice-of-reason sister Stacy, and Aubrey Plaza as the foul-mouthed Julie are on screen far too little. The League of Evil Exes is full of great cameos (although the Katayanagi twins get the short end of the stick) including a fantastic turn by two superheroes: Chris Evans (Captain America) as skateboarder-turned-action hero Lucas Lee and Brandon Routh (Superman) as elitist vegan psychic Todd Ingram. Routh is especially hilarious, his cocky, arrogant (and well-muscled) character a parody of Dragonball Z and uppity, veggier-than-thou types. Mae Whitman is also great as Roxie, the “bi-furious” ninja who comes the closest of all the exes of taking Scott out…except for Ex #7, final boss Gideon Graves. Jason Schwartzman effortlessly conveys Gideon’s smug sense of superiority and the charisma that drew Ramona to him in the first place. He’s the devil in a hip, white three-piece suit.
But forget all of them, because two actors literally walk away the entire movie. First is Ellen Wong, who not only looks like Knives Chau, but also takes the Knives from the books and brings her up to the next level. At first hopelessly infatuated with Scott, and then vengeful when he dumps her for Ramona, Wong (in what is shockingly her first film) has a clear, exact grasp on the character. She’s endearing and dynamic, even when Knives is being unreasonable and desperate. Kieran Culkin, however, eclipses even Wong’s performance, easily stealing every single scene he’s in. Wallace, as Scott’s sardonic, sarcastic, usually pantsless conscience, is a collection of witty one-liners and clear confidence. Like in the books, Wallace is most likely the most mature and put-together person in Scott’s world, and he isn’t afraid to let everyone know it (or to steal your boyfriend when your head is turned). Wallace is one of modern comic’s coolest gay characters, and it’s very refreshing to see that his spirit and attitude is maintained from the books.
For the most part, the film is very loyal to the series except for the final books: it changes book 5 quite a bit (although the outcome is still the same) and ignores most of book 6, which hadn’t been completed when the film was in production. Timelines are changed, stories and characters are compressed, and a lot of backstory is missing, but isn’t necessarily essential. It adds a great deal of depth in the comics, but adding it to the film would have overstuffed an already full-to-bursting array of characters and relationships. Wright knows what to keep and what to leave out to keep the film exciting and well-paced. People who’ve never read the books can easily grasp the film, but knowledge of the source material adds another level of enjoyment to an already fantastic film.
I can say this is the first time in years I haven’t looked at the clock during the course of a film. The crowd I was with cheered with every “KO!” and gave some of the loudest approval to seeing the name Bryan Lee O’Malley on screen (and there were even several people in costume). People who didn’t grow up with the Legend of Zelda or Street Fighter may find the constant stream of video game references tiresome, and a lot of critics have unfortunately taken their frustrations out on the fans in their reviews. Regardless of your level of geekdom (from zero to grand master), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a fascinating, wildly exciting take on the age-old boy-meets-girl story. Inventive and confident, it’s a nearly-flawless victory in a summer full of “YOU LOSE!” blockbusters.