If you feel something rumbling beneath your feet, don't panic. That's just a generational shift happening. It's the collective armies lining up on either side of the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World divide, with one side priming themselves to declare that Edgar Wright has used the comic book stylings of author Bryan Lee O'Malley to create a new cinematic language, and the other side claiming it's all a bunch of hooey.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is an age thing. "Generational" may be the wrong term, but I find "cultural" too broad. In terms of age, I probably have one foot on one side and one foot on the other. I know there was at least one critic at the screening I attended who is older than me but whose post-show tweet suggests he really liked it. Yet, I eagerly await what Roger Ebert thinks of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He's still trying to climb out of that "video games can't be art" hole he dug. Will this knock him back to the bottom?
Simply put, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exhilarating piece of entertainment. It's not perfect. I found it a little slow to start, oddly paced here and there, but once it gets rolling, the head of steam it builds only gets hotter and poofier, until the whole thing explodes in an orgasmic delight of sight and sound. It's not all surface style either. This is a movie with a lot of heart--heart that is made out of neon and tastes like candy, to be sure, but one that is allowed to beat in all the wild ways it should, including the quiet, steady rhythm of contentment.
Scott Pilgrim is, essentially, a living embodiment of late-20th-century pop-culture malaise. Played by Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno), Scott is a fumbling ladies man who has squashed many a romance in his time, but who now wallows in a pit of despair following being dumped by his hot girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson, Greenberg) a year ago. Envy has since went on to become a huge rock star, while the 22-year-old Scott has started dating a high school student named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Not exactly upward mobility on Scott's part. His band, Sex Bob-Omb, features another of his ex-girlfriends, Kim Pine (Alison Pill, Milk), on drums and hasn't even really played a gig.
Enter Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Death Proof), the girl of Scott's dreams. Literally. She actually roller skates through his r.e.m. stage since Scott's empty brain is a great metaphysical doorway that cuts three miles off her travel time when she's out on the job delivering packages for Amazon. Scott spies her at a party, makes a fumbling play for her, and gets her to begrudgingly see that he's charming. He invites her to a battle of the bands Sex Bob-Omb is playing, but things go all haywire when the gig is interrupted by a flamboyant Bollywood villain (Satya Bhabha). He informs Scott that to date Ramona he has to defeat her seven evil exes. They've formed a league, you see. Until he defeats them all, her love life will never be hers to give away.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is based on a popular six-volume comic book series by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley and published by Oni Press. (Full disclosure, I am currently published by Oni and was actually editor in chief when the first book was greenlit, though it came out two months after I left the staff and had little to do with me, serving instead as signal flare between the old regime and the new--taking me right back to my opening statement.) O'Malley brought a perfectly modern sensibility to comics, employing the equivalent of hip-hop sampling techniques and mash-up playfulness to create a comic that gathered together all the things that influenced him: manga and anime, video games, indie rock 'n' roll, movies, superheroes, you name it. With his central conflict, he created a perfect metaphor for the foibles of love. To be with Ramona, Scott had to get beyond her past, and at the same time, realize that his was just as messed up as hers, even if, as he says in the movie, "My baggage doesn't try and kill me every five minutes." O'Malley's comic was fun, vivacious, clever, and full of deeper meaning than the cute art might suggest.
Edgar Wright jumped on the material almost immediately. The director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz was the perfect choice to translate the printed page for the screen. O'Malley's interests were very much in line with his own, and Wright's version of Scott Pilgrim is like a pulsing strobe light illuminating the last twenty years of pop culture. His mis en scene is comfortable with all the tropes--funnybook captions, illustrated sound effects, video game logic, 8-bit music, he even uses O'Malley's sequential art (far more successfully than the use of John Romita Jr.'s in Kick Ass, I might add)--and he jumps around in style and tone without ever tripping over the gaps in between. The adaptation, co-written by Wright and Michael Bacall, perfectly distills the sprawling series into one unit, trimming the fat but staying faithful enough that fans will recognize the thing they love. With its use of fast cuts, quirky transitions, and a heightened reality, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actually comes off as more of a delivery on the promise of Wright's cult TV show Spaced than it does the explorations of genre and parody represented by his other films. His footing is rickety at first, just as it was back in the early episodes of Spaced, but once we reach the giddy action climax, it's hard to imagine popcorn cinema ever recovering from what these guys have pulled off.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a hard movie to explain. It's not conventionally structured in terms of a romantic comedy, it's really more like a fight movie. Scott must contend with all of Ramona's evil exes, parts filled out by such notable actors as Chris Evans (The Losers), Mae Whitman (TV's Parenthood), Brandon Routh (Superman Returns), and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), who is absolutely awesome as Gideon, the slick musical producer that Ramona can't get out of her head. Schwartzman is slimy and jerky and yet...well, you kind of want to be around him, the dude's a walking party. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) plays Scott's sister, Kieran Culkin (Lymelife) is his sarcastic gay roommate, and Aubrey Plaza (Funny People, TV's Parks and Recreation) probably has my favorite bit part as the foul-mouthed Julie Powers. She really hates Scott. As should we all. As. Should We All!
This party definitely belongs to Cera, though, who has completely redefined the "Michael Cera role" with this and Youth in Revolt. Yes, he is awkward and goofy, but he's also assertive, active, and totally confident being awkward and goofy. For an actor who has been typecast playing guys who are uncomfortable in their own skin, he looks completely at home here. But then, who wouldn't get over their anxieties for a chance at Mary Elizabeth Winstead? She is gorgeous to behold, yet more than just a pretty face. Ramona is a tricky part. She could just be the snarky hipster version of the "manic pixie girl" if done wrong, but Winstead has the right combination of sass and vulnerability. Her attitude is perfectly reasonable given some of Scott's early screw-ups, and yet, we also get the sense that she's really, really trying to make a relationship work for once. One of the joys of the way the Scott Pilgrim books played out is that Ramona doesn't wilt into the background waiting to be saved, and Wright doesn't blow it by doing that here, either.
This all may be too convoluted for some, executed in a style that is too frenetic and self-aware to be taken seriously. Fair enough, I get where you're coming from. There is an element of the whole Scott Pilgrim experience that is stuck up its own behind and doesn't care whether there is room for you to climb in there and be part of it. I have never played Legend of Zelda, couldn't tell you what the song from it sounds like, but seriously, lots of nerds were excited to hear it on the soundtrack. And more power to them. Just don't mistake this film as a victory of ADD tech culture and the death of meaningful civilization or anything like that. To do so is to miss the point. To risk going overboard with the comparison, it's like shooting Elvis Presley, but only from the waist up. The manic editing is the new-century equivalent of the Roger Daltrey stutter on "My Generation." These kids are alright.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the triumph of the little guy over the big guy. The DIY kid vs. the media mogul, the indie comic that became the big Hollywood movie. It's been an exciting ride, and you can tell the people involved had fun getting it done. Why not buy a ticket and do the same?