Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is pure pleasure, a zippy Pop grab-bag, a joyous celebration of comic books, video games, rock music, fast movies, dumb TV, and (apparently) whatever the hell else struck director Edgar Wright's fancy. Based upon a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley (unread by me), it is a big, noisy, giddily energetic little corker of a picture, utterly ridiculous--gleefully so, in fact--but uncharacteristically sweet and good-hearted as well. It's just fun, plain and simple, and anyone who can't enjoy it has clearly forgotten how to have a good time at the movies.
Michael Cera (in the role he was seemingly born to play) is Scott, a 23-year-old musician and slacker from Ontario who, as the story begins, has begun an innocent courtship with 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). "She's Chinese," he explains. All is well until he sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a purple-haired American beauty who seems to float into his life and into his dreams, all at once; he falls for her hard and fast, but quickly discovers that she carries more baggage than most girls do. She's got these seven evil exes, you see. And they're all coming after Scott.
Wright, the stylish, witty director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the cult BBC series Spaced, gives the picture a fun-house visual style that draws heavily on both comic book and video game conventions. He fills his frame with sly little visual jokes, illustrates action and sound effects with playful on-screen text, and shoots Scott's brawls like epic fighting games. Some may grumble that he's drawing too heavily on video game iconography. I say what the hell--most directors treat their movies like giant, disposable video games anyway, at least this director's on the level about it.
He doesn't limit himself to obvious influences or easy choices, either--there's not much he won't try, and if some of his goofier contrivances (the Seinfeld shout-out, the flash of Bollywood) land with a thud, hey, at least he took them out for a spin. If there's a major flaw to be found in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it's that Wright plays too much of the film in one key; its fast pace and garage band energy are refreshing at first, but anything played at the same tempo for too long can grow wearying, and--in later sections--the picture somehow drags without pausing to catch its breath. But the early scenes have an unforced sweetness, and the closing moments sound a perfect, tentative chord; the film could have luxuriated in a few more of those well-earned pauses in between.
What it gets exactly right is the cheerful mixture of hard-crush love and low culture; like Frears's High Fidelity, it understands a particular breed of twentysomethings who define themselves as much by what they like as who they are. It dwells in the land of hipsters, but not of cynics--and here is where the casting of Cera is such a masterstroke. His detractors may complain that he's just "playing himself" again, but Scott Pilgrim is perhaps the definitive Michael Cera role; his wide-eyed innocence and dry line readings ("Sooooo," he carefully asks Ramona after his first battle with an evil ex, "what was that all about?") have never been more appropriate, or welcome. What's more, the film thankfully spares us the expected nerd-becomes-a-man arc; from the beginning, Scott is a brave, skilled fighter, and we don't get an explanation, because one isn't needed. We accept his abilities immediately, because they're presented as a matter of fact--just as they are when anyone who knows how to play the game picks up a controller.
The only problem with the supporting cast is that we don't get to see them enough, and that's a fine issue for any movie to have. Kieran Culkin mostly dodges the gay roomie clichés, Chris Evans continues to grow on me, Jason Schwartzman somehow lives up to his beautifully prepared entrance, and Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza give the kind of whiz-bang line readings that make you wish they were still making screwball comedies. Winstead, as the girl of Scott's dreams, has to play desirable, vulnerable, hardened, approachable, and aloof, often all at once; she makes it look easy, and is cute as a button besides.
Sure, the movie is all style, all flash--but what exquisite flash it is. There's so much joy in it, I couldn't help but sit with a big stupid goddamn grin plastered across my face for pretty much the duration. We're almost embarrassed that to be having such a good time. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a real treat.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.