Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is shockingly refreshing - exciting, idiosyncratic summer entertainment of the best kind. Staying extraordinarily true to the characters and tone established in Bryan Lee O'Malley's highly personal and very funny comic book series, co-scripter and director Edgar Wright piles on huge amounts of cinematic technique to a story that barrels across two hours with unheard-of creative ferocity. Wright and his crew set a new standard for maintaining an extremely fast pace without ever abandoning coherence, continuity, or the characters. The nonstop energy and invention of the picture are remarkable, as are the performances by the talented ensemble cast. Like the comics, the film is fast and furious fun, but it's also a tribute to those post-college lost years - that hangover-blurred period of parties and coincidence when life is simultaneously more promising and less exciting than it might seem at the time.
The title character, played by Michael Cera, is an aloof, somewhat emotionally stunted 22-year-old who shares a futon with his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and plays bass for the rock trio Sex Bob-omb. Scott has just started (unwisely) dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but almost immediately meets his roller-blading dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona has a tough exterior and a shady past. Scott is soon challenged to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes if he intends to develop a relationship with her, which takes Scott - and Sex Bob-omb - through a series of confrontations with increasingly outlandish settings and stakes.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World functions successfully on two vastly different but equally important levels. First of all and most obviously, it is astonishingly entertaining. Working from O'Malley's plot and characters, the film adds layers of storytelling flourish that are both appropriate and unexpected. Wright jams in dozens upon dozens of visual jokes, cultural references, and throwaway 8-bit gags that are worked seamlessly into the film's broader appropriation of video game style and graphics in its plotting and design. What's most impressive is that Wright's assured visual and editorial touches - even the goofiest ones - somehow come off as rooted in the characters and situations. Despite all of its self-awareness, Scott Pilgrim does not come off as smirky or snarky. It doesn't play fast and loose with cultural trivia that it only half-understands, or spend time trashing its indie rock-drunk competitors and compatriots. Unlike the larger milieu out of which it originated, Scott Pilgrim treats its characters with respect, looking at some familiar situations through an exaggeratedly fantastic lens and effectively paying tribute to that 20-something feeling that anything could happen on a night out with friends.
Which brings me to the second facet of Scott Pilgrim's success. Recent films that concern themselves with Generation Y (or younger) characters, tend to feature snide backbiting, self-hate, misdirected pseudo-intellectual blather, indulgent absorption, and over-medicated shoe-gazing - all of which are usually supposed to indicate some kind of perverse inward searching and/or personal growth. The characters in Scott Pilgrim engage in none of this delusional, self-destructive behavior - and the result is far more realistic than the alternative.
You've just graduated from college. You don't want to move home, but you're not ready to join the corporate workforce. You want to wallow in a little more youth. You join a band. You get into some fucked-up relationships. But you make connections, you learn, and you change. When you look past its huge visual and kinetic dazzle, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a knowing and heartfelt tribute to these "lost years" to which many of us would happily return. While not exactly nostalgic, the film is a reminder of that feeling of untethered freedom, and, through it encourages the kind of individualism that makes new discoveries possible in life.
I believe that sort of individualism exists in creator Bryan Lee O'Malley, and in director Edgar Wright. Rarely relying on pre-fabricated clichés or references to other works, Scott Pilgrim takes place in a heightened version of Toronto where a punch can send your opponent flying into a ten story-high castle wall, or where sound waves morph into gigantic electro-beasts, turning a Battle of the Bands into a proxy monster fight. These flights of fancy are not just special-effects exercises; they are manifestations of the genuine creative invention and expressive yearning of the film's characters - and their creators. This is the first time in quite a while where I experienced special effects as an integral aspect of the story, and not as an add-on meant to elicit a merely sensory response. The same can be said of all the other graphic and editorial quirks that suffuse the movie - the animated, comics-style sound waves emanating from Sex Bob-omb's amps; sound effects taken straight from old Nintendo games; swift cuts that compress time in a way that reflect Scott's often-distracted state of mind. In another film, these might all be mannered distractions, but here they emerge from the film's world effortlessly, helping sweep us along with its unstoppable forward momentum.
Cera, who has suffered from over-exposure up until recently, is well-cast here, and works to expand Scott beyond Cera's now-schticky stone-faced awkwardness. As in the comics, Scott is often self-indulgent, oblivious, and aloof, growing to understand why he wants to be with Ramona and what he's willing to do to be with her. Cera accommodates these aspects of the character with a firm grasp of youthful confusion and impeccable comic timing. As Ramona, Winstead embodies the mystery and allure of this independent, somewhat unapproachable girl with skin-thickening "battle scars" to show for her past romantic travails. The film is well-cast all-around, with an amusing, smarmy turn by Jason Schwartzman as Gideon Graves, and a surprisingly hilarious one by Brandon Routh as a would-be vegan warrior.
Maintaining great humor and a sense of the unexpected while efficiently navigating a dangerous, breakneck speed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the reason we anticipate summer films every year and remember them so fondly. Rooted in familiar experience and characters, Scott Pilgrim intuitively addresses the extended adolescence of the post-college years. It's an explosively entertaining movie that is as memorable for its quiet but persistent heart as it is for its considerable spectacle.