Even if you've read Bryan Lee O'Malley's series of independent graphic novels, there's not much that can prepare the viewer for the pure adrenaline rush of watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World unfold as a feature film. Familiarity with director Edgar Wright's previous movies, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, or his cult-hit UK TV series "Spaced" might help, but as impressive as they are, even they can't come close to the same head-spinning pace of inventiveness Pilgrim achieves. Starting with the movie's perfectly timed (and even thrilling, for fans of the comic) placement of "Universal Pictures Presents", the film is a flat-out explosion of comedic sensory overload all the way to the end of the final fight.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is an unemployed, 23-year-old Canadian who plays bass in a so-so garage band called Sex Bob-omb with his friends Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), lives (and sleeps on the lone futon with) his cool gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), and has a rating of "Awesome". Or does he? He's just started dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who may have stepped right out of a teenage boy's fantasy (she's a Catholic school girl, "with the uniform and everything"), but Scott's slightly pained justification to his sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick) that their intimacy-free relationship is "just nice" is less-than-enthusiastic. Even Scott knows his decision to date Knives is more cowardly than meaningful, and when a rollerblading delivery girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) literally pops up in his dreams (there's a super-convenient subspace highway in Scott's head), he realizes that he can't keep carelessly drifting through his precious little life forever.
Of course, although change requires everyone to roll with the punches once in awhile, Scott discovers that being with Ramona means engaging each of her seven Evil Exes in actual kicking and punching, during a series of video game-like showdowns cruelly designed by her last suitor, super-hip and super-evil record producer Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). In fact, the film is wall-to-wall video game references, from the obvious (Scott announcing he's learned the bass line from a Final Fantasy game, or grabbing an extra life that pops up next to him on screen) to the not-so-obvious (nearly every sound effect and music cue is taken from a game, primarily the Zelda series). On top of this, Wright tosses in a whole record label's worth of inspired original music written by Beck, Broken Social Scene, Metric and others (performed convincingly enough by the actors), and mashes them all up into a clever pop extravaganza that will take at least two viewings to completely digest. Other films would choke on this number of in-jokes, winks and nods, but Wright turns the references into the very fabric of the story and the characters' emotions, then sews each piece together with some of the most clever scene transitions (scene transitions!) I've ever seen. The high point of Wright's directorial mastery: a super-charged amp vs. amp battle that combines physical effects like falling girders and wind machines with aesthetically appealing CG effects in a rousing moment of cinematic bliss (bonus: the '80s-esque lightning bolt effects summoned a rush of fond childhood memories of Back to the Future and Ghostbusters).
The ads paint Scott as a character that falls right within Cera's awkward indie wheelhouse, which probably worries anyone who's tired of his usual schtick, but in the film itself, the actor brings plenty of attitude and note-perfect distractedness to the table. He falls flat from time to time (some of the dialogue doesn't jump from page to screen very well), but he shines in the right moments, especially whenever Scott's gotta get really fired up. Winstead's interpretation of Ramona is a similar story, although there are a few more speed bumps on her end. For the most part, Wright and Michael Bacall's script does a satisfying job of adapting all six graphic novels into a single feature, but the major concession is (understandably) staying focused on Scott as the lead character. As a result, there isn't much room leftover for some of Ramona's material, although the biggest complaint to be made here is that she really should participate more in the film's last action sequence. Her inactivity can be partially chalked up to re-shoots that re-routed the book from one ending back towards the book's ending at the last minute, but even knowing that and taking into account her one action beat, it's still disappointing.
Aside from Cera and Winstead, the supporting cast is basically a non-stop string of stellar performances. Wong also struggles with a few comic-to-dialogue transitions, but devastates in a few key emotional moments, such as Scott's weak-willed break-up with her. The best heroic turns include Culkin and Johnny Simmons as Young Neil (somewhere between a roadie, a groupie, and a back-up bass player), who easily give the funniest performances in the movie, while the best villainous acting comes from Brandon Routh as a smug vegan with mind-control powers and Schwartzman as Gideon. Some of Schwartzman's speeches go on too long, but for the most part he's the perfect embodiment of hipsters as thoughtlessly despicable 21st century bullies. In Gideon's mind, the act of "winning" Ramona is more important than being with her, and Scott's ultimate epiphany that defeating Ramona's Evil Exes is not worth doing as instant, get-the-girl gratification but as an act of selflessness is one of the film's most rousing, cheer-worthy sequences, and a clever subversion of the very princess-saving video games Scott's world is referencing.
There are a few nagging complaints worth lodging both as a filmgoer and a fan of the comic books. Beyond Ramona getting sidelined during the final fight and some of the clunky dialogue, it's hard to judge whether anyone not versed in either video games or O'Malley's books is going to see the character material lurking underneath Wright's cinematic pyrotechnics, but that's exactly the kind of thing that will make future viewings rewarding. Even if it's pixelated, Scott Pilgrim has a heart, and a willingness to illustrate both the noble and evil things we can do to the people we care about that helps it smoothly avoid tired, "forget the past, the present is perfect" pratfalls like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and heroes that "find themselves", and above all, that's why the movie packs a punch. "Continue?" never had so much meaning.
Read my roundtable interview with Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright and stars Michael Cera and Anna Kendrick right here at DVDTalk.
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