Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novels started up during my unfortunate disconnect from the comics world. I still have yet to read even the first volume, despite strong recommendations, and so was part of the vast majority of the audience coming to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as just a movie.
It's a hell of a movie.
Scott Pilgrim, played by Michael Cera of Juno and Superbad, is a hipster slacker in
his early 20s — or maybe an anti-hipster slacker, if that better evokes the attitude of being cool by rejecting what's cool — who must do combat with his new object of affection's "seven evil exes". There's plenty of inertial ennui in Scott's life as he plays with a band that he doesn't want to get big, shares a one-bedroom flat in Toronto with his gay best friend, and deals poorly with having been dumped a year ago by a now successful rocker known as Envy. But the title of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn't simply philosophical: Fight scenes abound. Our hero doesn't have a colorful costumed identity, merely an insanely awesome dimension to his quirkily banal existence; his everyday life is adorned with visible sound effects and other graphics even before things kick into high gear. SPVTW is one of those films that, to crib a phrase I've often heard from Roger Ebert, isn't notable so much for what it's about as for how it's about it.
The fact that duels to the death (...ish?) are integral to the story does make the innovative storytelling a logical extension of the plot rather than purely creative embellishment. If this were an entirely realistic movie about a young man attacked by his girlfriend's former flames, well, it'd be a very different movie indeed and still one with a fantastic conundrum at the heart of its "realism" — like watching an actual hunter try to outsmart an actual, yet still rascally, rabbit, or truly exploring the effects
of being bitten by a radioactive spider, both of which would probably be pretty short stories. In various writeups on Pilgrim, I've seen director Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead fame liken the set-piece skirmishes to musical production numbers; nobody in the story itself really questions how flagrantly unlikely coincidences occur or that everyone knows the right moves at the right time — although in Pilgrim there's just enough incredulousness at what transpires to make it that much more delightful.
Scott has taken to dating a high-school student named Knives Chau as World begins, but a roller-skating Amazon delivery girl with hot-pink hair soon literally invades his dreams; she turns out to be flesh and blood. Her name is Ramona Flowers, she's embodied by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a series of colorful wigs, and her resistance to Scott is quickly broken down — which is frankly the least believable part of the movie, as Cera's usual low-wattage whateverness turns to downright pathos around her. We're given indications throughout the film that Scott's honestly something of an unlikely ladykiller, but whether one blames the way Cera plays Scott, the way Winstead plays the enticingly aloof Ramona, or the way the casting and/or direction played them off of each other, if what they share is true love it's because the script says so. Kieran Culkin, who looks like his brother Macauley and Tobey Maguire slammed together and turned into David Sedaris, has been getting deserved critical raves for his turn as Scott's roommate Wallace Wells; I also liked Johnny Simmons as Young Neil, band hanger-on, and Alison Pill as Kim Pine, drummer and Scott's own pre-Envy ex, who outside of counting off songs is so deadpan that she makes Ramona seem like Paris Hilton at a dignity auction. The villains, whose portrayers include Brandon Routh, former Superman, and Chris Evans, future Captain America (much to my disbelief), are mostly fine, but with the possible exception of the discomfiting Rushmore I've never really liked Jason Schwartzman in anything and SPVTW did nothing to change my mind.
Despite the fact that the cast averages out to merely whelming, however, and inhabits an atmosphere that already feels slightly dated — strange to say about the cultural zeitgeist of a generation younger than mine — the near-relentless inventiveness of the movie makes it an instant classic. Pilgrim creator O'Malley, director Wright, and his co-screenwriter Michael Bacall have joined forces with a talented crew to graft Hong Kong action movies and videogame culture onto the alternative-film sensibility of Juno, Adventureland, and 500 Days of Summer. Those of you who, like me, not only appreciated the narration, visual tricks, and other idiosyncrasies of Summer but kind-
of wanted even more should enjoy the higher-octane flights of fancy (among them characters actually flying) in SPVTW, some of which it's taking considerable strength of will not to spoil. While the fight scenes are akin to breaking into song — and the series of "battle of the bands" concerts that Scott's own group is taking part in to land a recording contract provide some excellent no-joke songs — I found it fascinating that sequences of quiet conversation or contemplation were shot like music videos. There is also laugh-out-loud, dry-wit dialogue. And O'Malley has such a way with names, mixing the ordinary with the improbable with the outright gimmicky, that after consulting the cast list for a moment I tried to remember who was called Party Goer.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is either your kind of ride or it isn't. With all that's competing for my time and money, I still find myself contemplating another ticket.
Updated and revised November 2018
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