Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exotic multiplex confection – a romantic comedy with elements of its visual grammar swiped from comic books and videogames. It’s tempting to say that people who are sick of conventional Hollywood love stories will find a bracing alternative here but, unfortunately, Scott Pilgrim isn’t much of a love story, unless the affair you’re interested in is the one between a boy and his cultural totems. If that’s the case, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World should be hugely entertaining. It’s a visual knock-out with the sensibility of a pinball machine, caroming from one set piece to the next, turning on lights and spinning little flippy things and ringing bells. It’s not Speed Racer – it remains genuinely character-focused and never aims to overwhelm. But it’s playful, borrowing concepts like power-ups and extra lives from the RPGs and adventure games that have made them an intuitive part of a certain kind of narrative grammar for a generation.
The story isn’t quite Donkey Kong simple, but it’s drawn in deliberately broad strokes. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old who plays bass with Sex Bob-omb, a power-pop outfit on the verge of success. His girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Chinese-American high-school student who becomes Sex Bob-omb’s first groupie, is seen by the band as problematic in a Soon-Yi kind of way, not to mention a Yoko Ono kind of way, but things get more complicated when Scott meets Ramona Flowers (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead), a indie rocker’s wet dream who smirks fetchingly from underneath a shock of brightly colored hair. After Scott starts to pursue her — without quite being willing to break off the childish affections of Knives — a Battle of the Bands event turns into a one-to-one match-up from a Capcom fighting game, as one of Ramona’s ex-boyfriends challenges Scott to duel to the death.
By way of explanation on a city bus ride, Ramona tells Scott that if he wants to date her, he will first have to defeat her “seven evil exes.” She’s referring to what are known in videogame lingo as boss battles. Scott will still have to struggle through everyday problems like band rehearsals and awkward not-quite-sexual encounters, but those will be punctuated with garish, cartoonish, overdramatized head-to-head challenges by Ramona’s former paramours. If he can come out on top again and again — like Nintendo’s rotund plumber Mario, battling his way through a level only to be told that his princess is in another castle, each victory bringing with it the almost Sisyphean promise of another trial to come — he will, presumably, win her heart.
Scott Pilgrim was originally a comic book that incorporated some of the visual conventions of videogames into sequential storytelling. The film version, then, is a hybrid that strives to apply the visual style of a comic that mimics a videogame to a feature film. Edgar Wright, who proved himself a fairly expert mimic with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, gets the balance as right-on as I can imagine. Some of the on-screen fripperies feel a little arbitrary, like the decision to design cartoon-style onomatopoetics into the shots to denote phones ringing, etc. But they contribute to an overall visual strategy that isn’t wearying so much as invigorating. The image comes alive in interesting ways, especially as the film’s bigger-than-life confrontations roar to life. It turns out Wright is a fine director of action scenes, even though he’s known for character-based comedy. The film is rife with computer-generated imagery, but Wright is unusual among today’s big-budget Hollywood filmmakers in that he never allows the visual effects to completely take over the image. You never forget that there are people (and/or their avatars) in the frame.
I haven’t read the graphic novels, but I’d imagine the concept is a bit more problematic on the silver screen than it was in comics. In the comic books, Scott Pilgrim is an illustration — a stylized representation of a plucky young man who can slip into a high-powered videogame battle as inconspicuously yet expertly as Mario himself. In fact, that’s become a convention of late-generation videogames — the level-ending battle against a boss so ridiculously huge and fearsome that it seems at first inconceivable that your puny character could deal him any damage whatsoever. The satisfaction comes from figuring out and exploiting the giant’s weak points. There’s some of that in Scott Pilgrim – for example, he defeats one pre-emptively muscle-bound adversary by appealing to his pride. But the presence of a very real Michael Cera up there on screen, that gangly, gawky fellow who looks like he’d have trouble winning a boss battle with Droopy Dog, raises the question of why he’s proficient enough to get past Level One. Is it because he’s an excellent videogame player? Because his heart is just that big? I was left wondering. At any rate, Cera delivers a genuinely winning performance that might have been hard to coax from a more confident, self-possessed actor. He invites us to read his unlikely victories as pure psychological metaphor: it represents the mental inventory that any new boyfriend might take of his paramour’s previous relationships, overcoming his own insecurity about her expectations.
In that way, the title of the film is highly apt — this movie is all about Scott Pilgrim; everyone else gets short shrift. Ramona, for example, serves a clear function as eye candy (the movie has her in her underwear in the first act), but is depicted as fickle and easily manipulated, never developing a personality beyond the men she’s attached to — eventually, she even abandons Scott to hook up listlessly with the despicable hipster Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), her seventh evil ex. It doesn’t make much sense; it just drives the narrative, setting up the final curve of Scott’s character arc. Late in the game, Scott realizes that he’s no longer fighting those boss battles to win Ramona’s hand, but to gain his own self-respect.
That’s why the film’s ending is such a clunker. Given the opportunity to push the Scott-Knives-Ramona love triangle in any number of directions, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World takes absolutely the easiest, most conventional route out of that thorny situation. Knives has developed as a character so that she’s over Scott, but he is in no way ready to loose his grip on the video-arcade fantasy that is Ramona. She remains a cipher with no dramatic or emotional function beyond her status as our hero’s reward for beating the game. That’s appallingly sexist, yes. But in the context of the rest of the film, it’s at least arguably instructive. This film represents the interior life of a likable but awkward and insensitive 23-year-old garage rocker raised in the 1990s on videogames and dumb action movies — would it necessarily occur to him that Ramona has an inner life of her own?
The boy’s still got a lot of growing to do, but this film has a rollicking good time showing us the world as he sees it — a place of infinite promise, vibrant with color, light and power chords. The view is problematically reductive but also sweetly naïve, romantic, and optimistic. It works in genuinely warm and funny ways, earning a place for its initials on the leaderboard of this listless summer movie season.