SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is a fun, witty, energetic movie that has the power to make the winter we’re having feel like the pitch of summer-movie-season. This is coming from a guy who doesn’t love SHAUN OF THE DEAD or HOT FUZZ as much as you probably do, and quite honestly, at first I wasn’t sure if I loved SCOTT PILGRIM unequivocably either. It took me the first half hour to warm up to it, really. It felt dangerously cutesy, more like the kind of thing I would’ve loved fifteen years ago but not today, as a sporadically-mature adult man. At some point early on, the movie either won me over or I relented, because for the rest of the running time I found it to be seventeen different kinds of fun.
You don’t have to be a fan of the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley to have a great time at the movie. You don’t have to be a fan of video games to have a great time at the movie. I’m sure it helps, but I can’t say I’m really either one of those things. You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Wright’s previous pair of movies either, SHAUN OF THE DEAD or HOT FUZZ, although you can be, and either way you should be impressed at the lightning-leap forward the young director takes on this newest flick. Working with Bill Pope, one of the most forward-thinking cinematographers in the business (THE MATRIX, SPIDER-MAN 2, TEAM AMERICA), Wright stylistically blows the roof off the place and does a standing back-flip out into the front yard.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is the story of the title character, Scott Pilgrim, played by SUPERBAD’s Michael Cera. Scott is a 22-year-old bass guitarist in a band called Sex Bob-Omb – I know, I didn’t like the name either until I heard it screamed out loud by the band’s drummer – and it helps that the actual tunes are played by Beck (who, not for nothing, Michael Cera kinda resembles in this movie).
Scott has a 17-year-old girlfriend named Knives Chau, played by the endlessly sweet Ellen Wong in a role I should have hated but totally didn’t. Scott lives in a one-bedroom apartment where he shares a bed with his caustic gay roommate Wallace Wells, played by a scene-stealingly dry Kieran Culkin. I also really liked the interplay between Scott’s band, which includes lead guitarist Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill), and roadie/bass understudy Young Neil (Johnny Simmons, who was equally likable in the much-maligned JENNIFER’S BODY).
The danger of making a movie about hyper-verbal, super-quirky young people is casting; cast the wrong people and the movie can be unbearable. This movie shows how it’s supposed to work. This movie is perfectly-cast. I liked all of these kids, even in the moments where they were being jerks to each other. The banter is fresh and fast – you have no idea how fast – and these characters are a good group to spend a couple of hours with.
This miniature environment in which Scott Pilgrim roams is totally upended when he meets a girl named Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This is the crux of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD – Scott falls in love at first sight and works overtime to make it mutual, to great comedic effect . The thing is, Ramona is flighty and elusive and guarded and frequently less than affectionate. She’s also cute as all hell, and as we all know, all of the above can make for a maddening combination.
As the relationship develops, it becomes apparent that Ramona has a string of exes who are more than happy to make it even harder for Scott than it already is. Here’s the main conceit of both the comic book and the movie, which is that Scott has to literally defeat the seven evil exes in battle if he wants to date Ramona. It’s a cross between a John Hughes movie and a 1970s kung-fu flick. It’s as if the young John Cusack was cast in MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. It’s a Michael Cera action movie. It shouldn’t work, and yet it totally does.
Again, that’s a credit to the cast who Edgar Wright has assembled, particularly a brilliantly over-the-top Chris Evans as a pro-skateboarder turned action-movie-star and ex-Superman Brandon Routh as a towering metrosexual supervillain who is currently dating Scott’s own ex, Envy Adams (Brie Larson) and is happy to rub it in. And then there’s Jason Schwartzman as the Lex Luthor and the Doctor Doom of the entire enterprise, about which I will speak no more, only to say that no one anywhere does that blend of infuriating and impishly charming as well as this guy does.
But the key to the success of the entire movie, in my opinion, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She’s playing the idealized dream girl, and is convincing enough at that for sure, but she brings a calm and an indecision and even a little darkness to the role that is absolutely the source of the movie’s believability, even amidst all of the kung-fu fights and sword duels and musical numbers. She makes you believe that a girl like this would be interested in not only the geeky Scott Pilgrim, but also that she had been interested in each one of the seven evil exes at one point. She suggests a realistic dating history that doesn’t have the room to exist onscreen with all of the movie’s more fantastic elements. She has an understandable chemistry with Michael Cera, sweet yet sharp, tender yet tentative. She has a late-in-the-game moment with a hammer that renders a THOR movie irrelevant. She’s great.
And for the record, Michael Cera is reliably good too – his comic timing is as always, impeccable, and even though he’s playing a character who technically can be somewhat of a dickhead, he’s always worth rooting for. This is both a departure from the typical Michael Cera performance (gawky, bewildered, and sarcastic) and a more complicated shading of a familiar role for him. He’s a super-talented kid, and though his peerless ability to play young makes me wonder how he’ll sustain a career once he grows out of those roles, I can’t imagine any other actor who could have carried this movie.
And I can’t imagine anyone else who could have directed it. Edgar Wright has done some impressive, interesting work with this movie. His direction is fizzy and brisk and feels like something new. The movie moves quickly but cleanly, and though it’s dense with pop cultural references and visual cues and sound effects, all of those things feel organically incorporated into the movie around it. It might draw on the aesthetics of old-school video games, but it only ever feels like the work of a director in love with movies. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, as reference-heavy as it is, is truly original, and besides that, it’s more accessible than I ever could have imagined. It’s a movie that you could show to little kids and to very old people alike, and they’d all spark to it (although I imagine that it could seem totally surreal to someone who never played any video games and wonders why all these villains are turning into coins and why some guy keeps screaming “K.O.!” on the soundtrack.) It’s a great date movie, and it can also serve as hope to the lonely souls in the audience. It’s a movie about something, about the self-doubt and the confusion that meeting a new person and wondering how you can measure up to their standards, and it tells that story with unparalleled style and verve. And again, it’s a Michael Cera action movie that convinces. Who would have dreamed?
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