(by Dustin Putman
An indie-fused slacker comedy. A character-centric slice-of-life. A part-acerbic, part-heartfelt romance filled to bursting with classic '80s teen movie tropes. A rock-'n'-roll anthem to twenty-something disillusionment. A pedal-to-the-metal, phantasmagoric action epic. A guiltless, unapologetic fantasy. A comic book adaptation that gives new meaning to the term "comic book adaptation." A slapstick. A sitcom. A satire. Writer-director Edgar Wright, he of 2004's "Shaun of the Dead" and 2007's "Hot Fuzz" cult fame, has outdone himself on the ambition scale with "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," an unpeggable, one-of-a-kind slice of unorthodox cinematic heaven. Combining genres with the auspicious flagrancy of a trailblazing auteur, Wright's aesthetic "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" approach could have easily—and quickly—grown stale and wearisome. Somehow, some way, he makes it work. The results don't necessarily spell a subjectively deep experience, but it's so criminally entertaining the viewer barely notices. Article continues below
22-year-old Toronto native Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is unemployed, shares a dinky basement apartment with gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and regularly gets together to jam with fellow Sex Bob-omb band members Kim (Alison Pill), Stephen (Mark Webber) and Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). Currently dating cheerful 17-year-old high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), Scott's heart suddenly starts beating ever faster when he meets the elusive, sarcastic, seemingly unattainable new girl in town Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). At first stand-offish toward him, Ramona fast grows weak to Scott's unassuming charms. The biggest thing standing in the way of their newfound relationship: Ramona's seven evil exes, whom Scott has no choice but to fight in succession if he ever hopes for a happy, peaceful ending with the girl of his dreams.
Based on the Oni graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is a sensory sensation filmed and released in two dimensions, but feeling more authentically 3-D than the actual 3-D failures Hollywood has been inundating us with for the last couple years. Better yet, there are no annoying glasses to wear and no dimming of director Edgar Wright's rainbow-filled color scheme. In the wrong hands, and without just the right command of the material, the proceedings could have gone into overload territory. The experience could have been garish, tonally confused, and just plain tedious. It's not. The picture is infectiously energetic and unexpectedly well-balanced between an earthbound reality wherein the viewer is invited into Scott's post-adolescent, pre-adulthood world and anything-goes flights of fancy as Scott aims to win over Ramona by facing off with her evil exes in exuberant video game-style battles.
Even with such obvious fantastical elements, the people the story involves feel authentic and their roles believably lived-in. Each one, right down to the smaller supporting players, is well-written, distinctive, and makes an impression. Knives Chau, Scott's teen girlfriend, could have easily been turned into a screeching shrew or an Asian stereotype, but she never does; she's kind and friendly, and it really stings when Scott finally breaks up with her. Likewise, Scott's former ex, once named Natalie and now known as Envy Adams (Brie Larson), lead singer of rock group The Clash at Demonhead, is portrayed as a bigger-than-life personality whose fame has slowly begun to change her own self-identity. When Scott calls her by her real name, it's the slap back to the real world she needs to remember who she once was. It's a poignant moment, even amidst a grand-scale, brick wall-destroying fight between Scott and Envy's current pretentious vegan boyfriend—as it happens, one of Ramona's past beaus—Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh). Others, like Scott's man-crazy best friend Wallace; his bandmates; his opinionated younger sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), and coffee shop worker Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza), having a bleep to audibly override every curse word she liberally throws around, are just as memorable.
The mano a mano fight scenes, each well-placed and well-spaced between the super-clever dialogue and character-focused moments, never threaten to grow boring because they are all so different from each other. The way that the exes appear in the story also are imaginative, from big-headed movie star Lucas Lee (Chris Evan) shooting a movie in Toronto, his over-the-top introduction amusingly cut and scored to the Universal Pictures logo music; to the aforementioned Todd Ingram being tied to one of Scott's exes; to pint-sized, ultra-tough Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), from Ramona's experimental days in college; to the big daddy of them all, powerful, spell-weaving club owner Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). The laws of physics are dropped in these sequences and the audience is asked to go along with the characters' seemingly superhuman powers—fortunately, that is never a problem—Scott's defeats each culminating in his opponents shattering into gold coins like something out of "Super Mario Bros." It is all quite something to behold.
And then there are Scott Pilgrim and Ramona V. Flowers. Their courtship is not without bumps—Ramona barely pays him any mind when they first meet at a party—but as they get to know each other better Scott senses he might have a real chance with her. A walk through a Toronto park, snow falling all around them, is particularly magical. Nevertheless, the love story between them is the one element the film falters on, and it's a decidedly big misstep. Since the whole movie revolves around Scott's battles to safely claim Ramona as his girlfriend, there should be the strong sense that these two souls are meant to be together. This, alas, never really comes, with Ramona appearing more as if she might just be stringing him along until someone else catches her eye. She's a fly-by-night sort of gal, not someone who looks to want to settle down, and by the end lingers the question of what kind of a future these two actually have as a couple. In many ways, Scott would seem much better suited for Knives Chau, who genuinely adores him and with whom he appears to have a lot of fun. Ramona is the hard-to-get type, and maybe that's the point; Scott is doomed to forever chase the fussy and borderline-unobtainable.
The jury is still out on Michael Cera's (2010's "Youth in Revolt") longevity as an actor and leading man; he's definitely affable, but there isn't a hint of danger or sexual masculinity about him, and his fairly constant typecasting as a speckless, vulnerable good guy is growing thin. Even so, Cera is great at deadpan humor and one finds themselves rooting for him no matter what. As Ramona, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2007's "Live Free or Die Hard") does respectably as a young woman still trying to find herself while changing her hair color every week, but is not nearly as charming and effervescent as newcomer Ellen Wong, a disarming scene-stealer as Knives Chau. Kieran Culkin (2002's "Igby Goes Down"), making a welcome return to the spotlight after taking several years off, is endlessly watchable as Scott's roommate Wallace, his straight-shooting personality the only straight thing about him. Brie Larson (2010's "Greenberg"), an eye-catcher as Envy Adams; Aubrey Plaza (2009's "Funny People"), hilarious as the acerbic Julie Powers; Mae Whitman (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe"), comically inspired by giving Roxy Richter a southern drawl; Jason Schwartzman (2007's "The Darjeeling Limited") and Chris Evans (2010's "The Losers"), capturing the different sides of pomposity as evil exes Gideon Gordon Graves and Lucas Lee—really, the name-drops and compliments could go on and on for one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year.
If the romantic showcase at its center is more a base hit after two strikes rather than a home run, then everything else in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is like a World Series victory. Is the girl Scott chooses at the end the right one? This is open to interpretation, but the film at least makes it clear that Scott's journey is one that he takes for himself and not just for Ramona. Breaking free from his safety zone and taking a chance—and, in the process, starting to make a small name for himself as a member of Sex Bob-omb after a Battle of the Bands competition—Scott finally starts to understand who he is. It's his first baby step toward growing up. Glammed out with exemplary editing by Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, full of seamless, innovative transition cuts and complex ingenuity that embodies the world of a comic book, and cinematography by Bill Pope (2007's "Spider-Man 3") that mixes effective grittiness with transcendent surrealism, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is an adventurous movie lover's dream. Will its appeal move beyond the Comic Con crowd? One sure would like to think so. It would be a shame for a film to break this much creative ground and not have enough people notice.