Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): United States – directed by Edgar Wright

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains cartoony violence, some sexual content and themes, and some language

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens on the perfect note: an 8-bit approximation of the Universal Pictures logo as it might have appeared on the SNES, accompanied by a MIDI soundtrack of the Universal theme.  Then, as soon as the characters are introduced with on-screen stats and graphics, it becomes clear that the entire movie will be a mash-up of video game and comic book.

For anyone familiar with Edgar Wright’s work, this should be no surprise.  As far back as “Spaced,” one of the greatest modern television series, Wright displayed a unique panache for visual flair and transitions.  With a limited television budget and a compressed schedule he managed to imbue his comedy about two jobless flat inhabitants in a familiar England with a pop sensibility rarely rivaled.  It was clear from the beginning that Wright’s geekdom was supreme.

With Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz Wright continued his streak of hits, with the help of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  Both films are ultra-modern and hip, but also based in human emotions (at least those of the younger generation).  With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Wright manages the same effect, though the effort lacks the charisma and chemistry of Frost and Pegg.  Nevertheless, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World succeeds as a frenetic, visually dense and culturally hip telling of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel.

I have no knowledge of the graphic novels, and had no clue what to expect of the filmed version outside of the trailers.  Fortunately, the entire story is self-explanatory; this is not something heavily rooted in a Marvel or DC universe where an uninitiated audience might feel lost and confused.  The central characters in the film are Scott (Michael Cera, in a more animated form of his normal character) and his small group of friends.  He has a band, the Sex Bob-ombs, comprised of the heavily freckled Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and the relatively normal Stephen Stills (Mark Webber).  They have one groupie, Young  Neil (Johnny Simmons), who is soon joined by Scott’s new girlfriend, the 17-yr old Catholic schoolgirl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).  Their relationship is chaste and innocent, and naive enough that Scott receives a lot of flack from his friends.

Scott’s roommate, Wallace Wells (Keiran Culkin), is one of the more interesting characters.  He’s gay and shares a bed (out of necessity) with Scott in their small apartment.  A number of humorous scenes involving Wallace’s boyfriends and the bed will get some chuckles from a contemporary crowd.  There are other people in Scott’s life, including his sister Stacey (Up in the Air’s [review here] Anna Kendrick) and friend Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza).  But none of these Canadians eking out an existence in Toronto can compare with the kaleidoscopic-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a fresh arrival from New York.

Scott’s immediate infatuation with Ramona leads him down a troubled path filled with a number of unanticipated obstacles.  Aside from the problem his relationship with Knives poses, he has to contend with the ghosts of Ramona’s past.  In this case, however, they are not ghosts, but simply ex’es.  At various intervals, if Scott wishes to continue a relationship with Ramona, he must fight each ex in a battle.  Each battle is elaborately staged and animated, frenetic and packed with on-screen cues like those one would find in a video game.

Wright knows his contemporary culture, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is very much geared toward a young adult audience.  Despite the video game and comic book sensibilities, it is possibly one of the most accurate depictions of modern young adult emotions and emotional baggage.  Scott’s quest for Ramona is not treated like a constant battle for the love of his life, in which Ramona is the prize to be won.  Instead Scott is fighting Ramona’s past, dealing with it in a literal and potentially deadly manner.  Fortunately, he eventually learns the lesson that there are more healthy ways to battle and process past relationships.  Ramona is a surprisingly well-rounded character.  At one point she comments that she likes to live in the moment, reminiscent of the titular character in (500) Days of Summer.  But this attitude has left her with innumerable scars, damage that she will have to heal throughout the rest of her life.

Visually, too, Wright is familiar with today’s young adults.  At times the film is an assault on the senses, with so many layers of graphics that it is difficult to absorb them all simultaneously.  Fans of the film will likely want to seek out a second viewing.  Wright shines particularly with his transitions.  Many of them are so subtle that it is a surprise to learn that the background has changed.  Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, one guesses whether there will be a cut any time someone steps in front of the camera.  One particularly effective instance of his transitory skills is evident right after Scott is smitten by Ramona.  Scott’s lack of attention to time and space is portrayed by swift and hidden cuts in the scene.  Scott magically transitions from bed to the street to the coffee shop with no break in his singular train of thought.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does have some problems, some of them in the same vein as the recent Alice in Wonderland [review here].  Both films are visually lush but seem a bit hollow after the screening is over.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World doesn’t suffer as much, as it has a much more solid emotional core.  The progression of battles is also a bit long, and if we were to divide the film into fifths it would be the fourth fifth that drags the most.  In spite of these problems, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie that manages to touch the pulse of a great number of today’s young adults, their lives and relationships.  Whether this is right or wrong is a matter for debate, but the film successfully manages to capture a large amount of this generation’s post-teen angst.

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