It’s very difficult to take something familiar and make it feel new, but the new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does it. As energetic and exciting as any movie I’ve seen lately, the film is dripping with references from the worlds of comic books, kung-fu and video games, but combines them to result in a film that truly feels like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Scott (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old slacker living in Toronto. He doesn’t have a job, but spends most of his time and energy dodging adulthood. He plays bass in a decent but unremarkable band called Sex Bob-omb. He mooches off his gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin). And he is dating a 17-year-old high-school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who adores him.
Scott is willing to bask in the warm glow of Knives’ worship until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the new girl in town and the girl of his dreams, who has an ever-changing hair color and a whole lot of baggage. The two begin a tentative relationship, until Scott discovers, somewhat abruptly, that in order to date Ramona he will have to fight and defeat her seven evil exes, all of whom are intent on destroying him.
Appropriately enough for a video-game obsessive like Scott, these fights are deliriously stylized and over the top. Punches send people flying through walls, every blow landed results in a higher point total and characters burst into cascades of gold coins when they are defeated. Ramona’s exes range from Bollywood goth Matthew Patel (Satya Bahbha) to Hollywood action star Lucas Lee (a hilariously smug Chris Evans). But the funniest of these fights is with the sinister Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), whose veganism has endowed him with psychic powers, including a superhuman amount of self-righteousness.
The film was directed by Edgar Wright, and adapted by Wright and Michael Bacall from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels. Wright’s previous films, the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead and the cop parody Hot Fuzz, as well as the TV series Spaced, were all known for the way he combined cultural influences with an amazing visual wit and surprising reservoirs of emotion. That is certainly still true here. The movie is steeped in comic books, video games (circa 1990) and Canadian indie rock (circa 2003), but it uses these less as a way to drop names, and more to show the way a pop culture-soaked youngster like Scott might see the world.
Most of what we see seems to have burst from Scott’s game-saturated psyche. He sees himself as the hero of the story, and perceives his problems using the milieu of video games. In reality, he may just feel inadequate because Ramona dated a famous guy, or because she’s still hung up on one of her exes (Jason Schwartzman, delightfully creepy), but as Scott imagines it, he can treat them as foes to be vanquished.
With this film, Wright has made one of the most joyous, immersive films in memory. The screen absolutely buzzes with energy, and traditional cinematic techniques don’t seem to be able to contain it all. Wright uses a dizzying array of stylistic tricks to create the movie’s game-obsessed style. The action scenes spring forth like musical numbers. Text flies across the screen (a ringing phone goes “RING RING,” a doorbell goes “DING DONG” and a guy flying through a wall goes “THWONK!”) and intricate editing makes scenes morph into one another in a near-hallucinatory manner. The film’s style can be almost overwhelming at times, but in the hands of Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Army of Darkness), the sensory assault is never confusing.
I must admit that I fall right into the film’s intended audience. I grew up hanging out in the arcade and spending too many hours playing NES games in my basement. But I don’t think that you need to know what a Bob-omb is or be able to recognize the music from The Legend of Zelda in order to like the movie. It’s consistently hilarious, and, underneath all the game references and silliness, has a surprisingly honest depiction of a burgeoning relationship.
After Scott and Ramona pass through the initial, chemical infatuation, they must begin to confront the real, sometimes ugly truth about who the other person actually is, and, knowing about all the baggage they bring to the table, confront whether being with the other person is worth taking on their problems. Scott and Ramona, while always compelling, can both sometimes be less likeable than the leads in traditional romantic comedies, and in portraying them as flawed and imperfect people, the movie is rather more clear-eyed and honest about young love than most films.
Cera has been criticized for giving the same deadpan, nerdy performance in all his films, and while that might be a fair argument, his baby-bird schtick hasn’t grown old for me yet. Still, Scott Pilgrim gives Cera some different notes to play. Scott is much more of a puppy dog than Cera’s previous roles: guileless and wide-eyed, callow but not malicious. After Ramona’s past literally shows up and starts wailing on him, Scott has to be reminded that he has left quite the trail of destruction of his own, ranging from Knives all the way back to his high-school dalliance with Kim Pine (Allison Pill), the drummer for his band.
Scott can be quite selfish and thoughtless at times. He is a member of a narcissistic generation of gamers who see themselves as the protagonists of the story, and everyone else as a disposable means to an end. Or perhaps he’s just a regular guy in his early twenties. And all this fighting has the unintended consequence of making Scott confront just what he wants from life and what he thinks is worth fighting for.
Cera is backed up by a truly terrific ensemble, including Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) as Scott’s younger sister and Johnny Simmons as a band-mate named Stephen Stills. Almost everyone is great, but a few performances stand out. Winstead’s Ramona remains sublimely skeptical even as she falls for Scott. Culkin shows off his terrific comedic timing as Wallace, tossing in hilarious lines from the sidelines as Scott gets pummeled. And Pill makes Kim’s rage and pain toward Scott feel real even as the film treats her character as a joke.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World takes its many influences and references and turns them into a unique, but inviting world that feels incredibly kinetic and joyous while also having a little more depth and honesty than was expected.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.