[This review was originally published on my blog The Photo Play.]
Imagine, if you will, a world in which video game fights are very real, and interrupt the normal flow of life much like songs in a musical, sweeping the world along into its bizarre unreality until it is completed, at which point life and the world return to normal. That is the bare minimum of what the viewer will need to prepare himself for as he walks into a showing of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright, Pilgrim is full of the manic energy of his earlier films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, while adding layers of deftly-wrought magical realism which conjure comic-book aesthetics and video game narrative. It’s all so much muchness that upon leaving the theater one might be forgiven for wondering what just happened.
Ostensibly Pilgrim is a love story in which the protagonist has to deal with his new girlfriend’s previous lovers, but instead of a love-triangle, the story gives us a love-nonagon. Scott Pilgrim, our fearful hero, must battle the Seven Evil Exes of the lovely Ramona Flowers in order to win the right to court her. Each fight is a mix of comic book superhero tropes and old-school (8-bit) video gaming, with some chop-socky martial arts thrown in. Defeated nemeses shatter into a pile of coins–“You just headbutted my boyfriend so hard he burst,” says the surviving girlfriend of one defeated Ex–or into other common gaming objects like weapons or powerups. All this stuff threatens to overpower the movie and destroy any meaning outside of itself, but Wright manages to keep it under control, if just barely.
The weakest links in this story are unfortunately the two main actors, Michael Cera as Scott and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona. Scott is obviously written to be a self-centered jerk who has left his own trail of exes behind him, and who has little empathy for the plights of his friends and family. Sadly, Cera’s usual comic schtick is to act almost psychotically self-conscious and aware of everything around him, constantly worried of being taken the wrong way, and whenever Cera tires of acting the jerk in Pilgrim he reverts to the awkward teenager he portrayed in Arrested Development. Winstead’s problem is that she seems to have neither the beauty nor the charisma to embody a woman who could both force Scott to leave his current girlfriend and also create an impressive collection of exes who hate her enough to band together in violence against her current beau.
The actors chosen to portray the League of Evil Exes, on the other hand, are superb. Satya Bhabha as the first Evil Ex is hilariously creepy and ridiculous. Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as her ex-turned-action-star Lucas Lee is a good-looking bully you love to hate. Brandon Routh is cast perfectly as a super-powered vegan who can fly and punch people so hard the highlights are knocked out of their hair, and who wears a shirt obviously reminiscent of his breakout role. While the Katayanagi twins seem to fill the shoes of the two exes Ramona dated at the same time well enough, they don’t have enough screen time to make an impression. Mae Whitman as Roxy Richter is worlds away from her morally-upright wallflower role of Ann Veal in Arrested Development, which only makes the contrast that much more amusing. Finally, Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited) as Gideon Gordon Graves perfectly embodies the self-centered jerk that Scott is meant to be, and then takes it to another level. I suspect that the parallels between Scott and Gideon are supposed to be clearer than they are, with Scott finally overcoming his nemesis by a choice of will, but unfortunately that subtext is lost by Cera in the actor’s confusion.
The greatest misfortune surrounding Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is that it was released in the same weekend as The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. Most men looking for an action movie went to see the former, and most women wanting a film with romance went for the latter. Little did all these moviegoers know that both could have been found in spades at Scott Pilgrim. If this film continues to do poorly in theaters, one hopes it will at least have a long and rich life on video. It’s a breath of fresh air in a room that has gotten far too stale, especially if its box office competitors are to be taken as indicative of the times.