REVIEW SUMMARY: Very funny and occasionally exasperating, with equal parts wit and charm and a great deal of heart, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World turns out to be one of the strongest film adaptation of a graphic novel thus far.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty-two-year-old Toronto bassist and slacker Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona Flowers, but before he can date her he must fight, and defeat, her seven evil ex-boyfriends.
PROS: Nearly pitch-perfect casting of both the leads and the supporting cast; brimful of popular culture references (specifically video games); comic elements are often hilarious and genuinely clever; engaged, energetic direction by Edgar Wright, specifically in the movie’s pacing…
CONS: …but the pace is so energetic that it threatens to exhaust the viewer.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World begins precisely as one would hope: with the Universal logo redone as a Gameboy graphic, complete with pixelated globe and eight-tone theme that will bring fond memories to anyone who has ever played a Super Nintendo. This tweak sets the tone for the rest of the movie, a vibrant bit of absurdist fare that blends the romantic comedy with video game playability into something that could have fallen apart less than ten minutes into its running time yet somehow manages to work. It even manages to say something about past relationships, though in a way one would never find in a chick flick. Or even a standard romcom, for that matter.
Of course, it benefits from fine source material. Taken from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the movie follows the existence of its twenty-something title character (Michael Cera, for a change toning down his stammering hyper-angst turns in Juno, Year One and the sublime “Arrested Development”) as he slogs through his routine existence. When not playing bass in a middling rock band (Sex Bob-Omb, and really, how can you not love a name like that?) or sharing a layabout existence in a rundown apartment with friend Wallace Wells (Kiernan Culkin), he tries to figure out his burgeoning relationship with high school student Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, and again, what a great name), much to the chagrin of his eighteen-year-old sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), his band mates (who cannot believe they haven’t even held hands) or even Wallace (who texts Scott’s actions every chance he gets). Then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party in typical Meet Cute fashion. When he learns that she works for Amazon, he orders something in hopes of having her deliver it…which she does, allowing Scott the perfect opportunity to ask her out.
Even in these familiar moments, the movie shines. Director Edgar Wright lifts a good many moments directly from the graphic novel (such as the introduction of Scott’s and Wallace’s apartment, which reveals the ownership status of most of the furnishings and belongings through text tags), and captures the characters with the right mixture of self-assured cockiness and self-conscious awkwardness. When Knives asks band hanger-on Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) what he plays, he replies, “Oh, you know, Zelda…”
So you think you’ve seen it, even as Scott begins to date Ramona. Even as he must deal the sudden jealousy of his ex-girlfriend, pop star Natalie V. “Envy” Adams (Brie Larson). Even as he must choose between Knives and Ramona. And then, during a battle of the bands, he is attacked by Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), and their battle recalls not the cinematic battles of Jason Bourne or James Bond, but the video game Street Fighter, complete with “K.O.!” announcements and flashing lights. Patel even turns into coins after the duel, much to Scott’s delight. (He’s a twenty-two-year-old Canadian bass player; of course he’s broke.) At that point, Ramona reveals to Scott that, in order to date her, he must fight and defeat her seven evil exes. Which seems just fine to Scott: it means they’re dating.
And fight them he does. And it’s at this point that the movie begins to, if not deflate, then at least lose some of its cohesion. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World never stops being fun; Wright and co-screenwriters O’Malley and Michael Bacall keep the audience’s attention though sheer visual inventiveness and pop culture references. But after the third duel the movie becomes restless – not surprising, since it must tell the story of seven volumes in just under two hours. Credit Wright’s direction for keeping it all together. Credit, too, Wright and co-screenwriters O’Malley and Bacall with writing zippy, engaging dialogue. The pace may flag, but the movie continues to run as if by its own inertia, so most viewers may not notice it.
Casting helps. Michael Cera, who charmed in the television show “Arrested Development,” was in danger of losing audiences with his awkward stammer in Juno and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. For a change, he plays a character who feels less like Michael Cera and more like somebody the audience would want to watch. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Ramona with the right amount of attitude and vulnerability, and it’s difficult not to be engaged by Ellen Wong’s Knives.
It helps, too, that the movie makes a point of how past relationships can haunt without slipping into the preachy or maudlin, and thus bogging down the rest of the picture. Yes, Scott’s battles with Ramona’s evil exes are often fun and inventive to watch, but beneath the fun is the underlying metaphor of how our pasts can come to effect those about whom we come to care. For a movie that wears most of its very being on its glossy surface, such symbolism might seem a trifle superfluous. And yet the metaphor never overtakes the movie itself. Indeed, through it all, Scott does come to the end of his journey with more understanding. And a free life.