In Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright reanimated the zombie movie, and in Hot Fuzz he blew up action film stereotypes, both with hilarious results. Now, with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he’s trying to put the joy back in joystick and restyle video games as hip and cool.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a slacker – listless, moping through life, and far from the model of masculinity. Thankfully he’s in a band — it’s about the only cool thing he’s got going. (At least his high school-aged girlfriend – he’s 23, she’s 17 – thinks it’s cool.) To make matters worse, Scott is sharing his bed with his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and there’s nothing like seeing how often your gay roommate is getting laid to remind you how often you’re not. Yet somehow Scott’s endless stammering and boyish charm catches the eye of new hottie Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, there’s always a demon to slay. For Mario to get Princess Toadstool, he had to contend with Bowser. For Scott to get Ramona, it’s seven evil exes.
Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is every dork’s wet dream. The hot girl is obtainable, superpowers do exist, and you get to play bass guitar in a band. So it should come as no surprise that there’s no sense of reality in the film. In Scott’s world, the surreal is blended with the real – like a video game. Scott can survive being thrown across a field into the side of a castle and still be able to kiss the girl. And, when he defeats someone, they turn into quarters – great for video games or laundry day.
Wright’s inspiration is gleaned straight from the source material, although like the movie Watchmen, it’s more accurate to call it a frame-by-frame reproduction. Visually the film is outstanding, incorporating the graphic-novel world (comic-book world, if you’re not a purist) into Scott’s reality. The phone isn’t just heard ringing, it’s also spelled out across the screen. Scott’s head produces cartoon-like throbbing visuals when slammed into a pole, instead of just the usual sound.
Unfortunately, Michael Bacall, who co-wrote the script with Wright, doesn’t make the characters interesting enough to break the monotony that quickly sets in. If Cera wasn’t bringing his usual schtick that’s been done to death in virtually all his other roles, it might not get so old so fast. But he’s hardly breaking the mold playing Scott Pilgrim. In fact, it’s those around him who are far more compelling. As his love interest, Winstead brings a certain amount of charm to the role. She ensures that Ramona is aloof enough to ensnare the boys around her, but also likable enough that Scott’s dedication to her is understandable.
But it’s the evil exes who really get the fun parts in the film. Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman play three of the bad-guys roles and take them over the top in delightful ways. Routh especially plays it for all laughs as an ex who derives his power from veganism, delivering a supporting role almost as funny as his cameo in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. In addition, two of the ladies really nail their parts – Up in the Air‘s Anna Kendrick and Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza. They’re a welcome breath of fresh air when things start to drag.
The film’s positioning on several social issues is interesting. First, Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, is at once a stereotype and refreshingly unique. He hooks up – a lot. Sometimes with his boyfriend, sometimes with his old boyfriend and his new boyfriend, and sometimes with someone else’s boyfriend. While there’s attention drawn to the fact that not all of Ramona’s evil exes are boys, Wallace’s proclivities are simply fact. He’s gay and he’s gettin’ laid.
Second, when Scott has to defeat Ramona’s ex-girlfriend, the film is incredibly careful to ensure that Scott never knowingly or directly hits a girl. Others commit violence toward women, but it’s never Scott. Even in this fantasy world, he doesn’t cross this social boundary.
For all the shiny objects and distractions, the concept and characters can only maintain the story and battles through evil ex No. 4. Between the set-up and the big fights, by the time numbers five, six, and seven show up, the past relationships really feel like excess baggage. While Wright certainly makes it past the first couple levels with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the film doesn’t have enough lives to quite make it to the bonus round.