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Josh Reviews Scott Pilgrim vs. the World!

September 17th, 2010
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Let me say right up front that I found Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to be an enormously fun, engaging, original movie, and I am really bummed that the film has been so poorly received at the American box office.  After a summer filled with so many lazy, lowest-common-demoninator money-grab movies, here at last is a movie stuffed to overflowing with wit and creativity and heart.  Too bad so few people have seen it!!

Based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley (which I’ll admit that, despite my love of comics, I have never read), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World tells of story of Scott, a young, lonely twenty-something kid looking for someone to love (who will hopefully love him back).  The film is bold in making Scott to be rather unlikable when we first meet him.  We quickly learn that he’s been in a number of failed relationships, and that he doesn’t seem to have been too gentle to the girls he broke up with once he decided that they weren’t his one true love.  There’s been some back-lash against Michael Cera in recent days, and several of his films have crashed-and-burned (Year One was a mess, and did anyone see Youth in Revolt?), but he’s very well cast in the lead role of Scott Pilgrim.  He has the acerbic edge that allows us to see how he could easily be a jerk to the girls he’s dated, but he also has enough warmth and humor and gentleness that we still wish him well and want to follow him on his adventures in the film.

And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is certainly more of an adventure than the Juno/Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist type opening might have you believe.  When Scott meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he immediately finds himself deeply infatuated with her, and the two begin to date.  This is when Scott learns that, to date Ramona, he must battle and defeat her Seven Evil Exes.

If that synopsis is starting to sound like the premise of a video-game more than a movie, then you’re right!  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is positively drowning in a clear love for video-games.  The film does contain the increasingly elaborate and energetically staged superhero vs. supervillain fights (mirroring the increasingly challenging levels of a video game) that the premise seems to promise, but there’s much more to it then that.  Starting with the ingeniously revamped opening title-cards (in which the studio logos are presented in a pixellated version that looks like what you’d see after dropping a few quarters into an arcade game), practically every frame of the film is filled with creative stylization, much of it derived from the look of video-games.  When Scott defeats one of the Exes, the screen displays the points he’s just earned.  When he goes to the bathroom, a “pee bar” appears on screen to show us the emptying of his bladder.  And on and on.  Far from being distracting, these little additions are so full of humor that they bring a great deal of joy to the screen, even when poor Scott is finding his life becoming increasingly challenging.

(It is interesting, though, that the video game references aren’t patterned after today’s games.  Rather, the references and imagery all seem to be from the arcade games of the ’80s — Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Zelda, those sorts of games.  One assumes that these are the video games that director Edgar Wright, creator O’Malley, and the other members of the filmmaking team grew up on.  I thought the specificity of the references was delightful, but perhaps this is one reason why this film hasn’t seemed to connect so well with TODAY’s young people…)

Edgar Wright can do very little wrong in my book.  He directed every episode of the magnificent british TV show Spaced (click here for my review of the complete series DVDs), and then he went on to direct Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (click here for my review).  All of those works show that Mr. Wright has a terrific sense of fun and playfullness in his work, and that quality finds enormous expression in Scott Pilgrim.  In addition to all of the video-game references, throughout the film Mr. Wright displays an unlimited wealth of creativity and fearlessness as he constantly adds captions, crazy cartoon effects, split screens, and a dizzying array of other enhancements to the images on screen.  It reminds me of the way the in-his-prime Woody Allen wasn’t afraid to suddenly go to a split screen, or write what the characters are thinking on the bottom of the screen, in Annie Hall whenever he felt that would help enhance the story or lead to a funny joke.

Mr. Wright and his partners have surrounded Michael Cera with a wonderful ensemble.  I’ve already mentioned Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona.  She might have the toughest role in the film, as she needs to be mysterious and distant and yet also lovable enough that we understand Scott’s willingness to go to all the crazy lengths he has to go to in order to date her.  But she has no trouble finding that balance.  Her great beauty helps, of course, as does the worldliness that she brings to all of her scenes.  It’s a great performance.  Scott’s best friend Wallace is played by Kieran Culkin, who also has a tough balance to strike.  Wallace is very sarcastic, and he has to give Scott a lot of tough love over the course of the film, but we never lose sight of his friendship for Scott either.  I’ve been impressed with Kieran Culkin ever since seeing Igby Goes Down.  I don’t think that many filmmakers really know what to do with him, but he’s well cast here.  Speaking of tough love, there’s Anna Kendrick (so great in Up in the Air) as Stacey Pilgrim, Scott’s sister.  She’s a hoot as the no-nonsense, fast-talking Stacey, and like Kieran she’s able to be tough with Scott while still maintaining a feeling of tenderness towards him.  She’s terrific.

Ramona’s Evil Exes are an equally wonderful assemblage of talent.  My favorite is probably Brandon Routh as the super-powered vegan Todd.  I feel a little bad for Routh, as it seems that he’s had some trouble getting good work following Superman Returns.  As readers of this site know, I loved Superman Returns, and thought that he in particular was terrific in it.  But it’s also clear that he has considerable comedic chops.  He was a riot paired with Justin Long in Zach and Miri Make a Porno, and he’s equal amounts of fun here.  I was sorry to see him exit the film.  Jason Schwarztman (Funny People, The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore) is also great as the final Evil Ex, Gideon Graves.  He’s deliciously evil, and Mr. Schwartzman sinks his teeth into the performance.

This review is getting lengthy, and there are so many great actors and actresses I haven’t mentioned yet!  There’s Aubrey Plaza (so funny on Parks and Recreation) as Julie Powers, a sort-of friend of Scott’s who is sick of seeing him date and then piss off a lot of great girls.  Mark Webber, Alison Pill, and Johnny Simmons bounce off of one another really well as Scott’s band-mates.  Ellen Wong is wonderfully sweet — and then terrifically vicious — as the high-school girl Scott dates before meeting Ramona.  I could go on and on.  It’s a huge cast, and pretty much everyone makes the most of their roles, even if they only get a few moments of screen-time.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a fun, energetic romp.  It’s a great time at a movie theatre.  If it’s still playing anywhere near you, I encourage you to check it out.  It’s a light, frothy concoction — there’s nothing too terribly deep going on in the film — but boy is it a heck of a lot of fun.

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