Every year, Your Humble Reviewer sees at least one movie in the theaters that fails to click with the mainstream audience despite having all the earmarks of a future cult favorite. The top pick thus far this year looks to be Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Despite the presence of a cult film darling in the director’s chair – Edgar Wright, who gave us the well-liked Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz – this would-be trendsetter just can’t catch a break. That’s a shame because it’s easily the most creative and engaging film to hit the multiplexes this summer.
The film takes its basis from a popular graphic-novel series, focusing its storyline around one Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a slacker in his early 20’s who plays in a band called the Sex-Bob-Ombs and dates a starry-eyed teen named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). He’s content to slack his way through life until he spots dreamgirl Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party and becomes consumed with making her his new conquest. He manages to win her over, only to discover there’s a big catch involved in dating her: namely, that there is a League Of Evil Exes that he must fight to win her hand.
Thus begins a series of ever-intensifying battles between Pilgrim – who draws on fighting skills derived from his endless playing of two-player martial arts video games – and a series of ever-more-colorful opponents. The formidable roster of exes includes a movie star/skateboarding pro (Chris Evans) and an intensely self-righteous rock star (Brandon Routh) who draws his powers from his holier-than-thou vegan lifestyle. However, the worst foe may be the final ex, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), who mixes kung-fu skills with superior powers of standoffishness and snobbery.
The end result is a blitzkrieg-style geek epic where every scene overflows with audacious visuals and an irrepressible sense of “can’t believe we’re getting to do this” fun. It internalizes its comic-book source material nicely, with the script densely layering its references and gags a la Mad Magazine and delivering a large ensemble of characters and backstory info in a fast yet engaging (and comprehensible) style. Some have criticized the love-story elements of the film for being dramatically weak – but that seems to be the point here, as the superhero-size struggles are essentially a sendup of the unearned melodrama and angst that most people approach their late-teens/early-20’s love lives with.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World further benefits from strong ensemble acting. Cera may be the lead but he doesn’t carry the film’s weight alone. Everyone is on the same page, delivering the kind of deadpan-funny performances that help establish the film’s anything-goes world. Big scene-stealers in the supporting cast include Kim Pine as the perpetually sarcastic drummer in Scott’s band and Aubrey Plaza as a bitchy scenester who functions as a sort of hipster “Greek chorus” character for the plot.
Among the exes, Evans does a nice burlesque of machismo and Routh has a blast doing a bizarro-world “evil” version of his titular role from Superman Returns. Schwartzman doesn’t have to do anything new but he easily summons up the necessary smarminess to make Gideon a villain that is fun to hate. Winstead supplies the right amount of mysterious cool and visual appeal as the plot’s elusive figure of desire. As for Cera, it’s true that he’s doing the hipster-manchild schtick that we’ve become accustomed to – but he does a wittier, more nuanced variation that gets laughs in a subtle way. He’s also unexpectedly good in the fight scenes.
That said, the key to the success of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is Wright’s energetic and consistently inventive direction. He does a great job at bringing comic book reality into three dimensions, complete with sound effects that we can “see” and artfully rendered images that capture a comic panel’s mise-en-scene. He also fuses influences drawn from anime, kung-fu films and video games into a coherent visual style. The fight choreography is some of the best seen in an American film this year, as are the deftly-integrated CGI effects. He also maintains a consistency of performance style among his actors that works with his visuals to seal the reality of the world it portrays. The end result is the most complex and accomplished feat of directing Your Humble Reviewer has seen this year – and that includes Inception.
It’s unfortunate that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World has gotten buried in the summer-blockbuster tide. Perhaps it is too geek-specific, maybe it was released at the wrong time or it might just be one of those movies that is destined to find its true audience on video (sadly, the latter seems to be a defining trend for Edgar Wright’s cinematic ventures). In any event, anyone who celebrates schlock culture – and enjoys seeing synthesized into new and daring variations – should check this film out while it’s still lingering at the boxoffice. You definitely won’t be seeing anything else like it at the theaters this year.