This is not a love story. This is a story about love. And video games. And comic books. And demon hipster chicks. And learning to not be a jerk all the time. Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World pretty much covers the full gamut of male Gen-Y’s concerns. Our hero – the titular Pilgrim – joins Benjamin Braddock, Harold Chasen and Tom Hansen as yet another misguided young man desperately trying to navigate his own existence. That he does it in the architecture of a live-action cartoon is apt. Here is the universe from the eyes of a dude strung out on modern pop culture. The end result is the funniest, most furiously action packed film of the year; one certain to be beloved by all the boys and girls who share the same passions and foibles as its foolish hero (myself included).
The film is based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels. It has long been the best-kept secret of the comic-reading community. His books sweetly skewered every Gen Y archetype under the sun; they explored the delight of finding new love, and the heartbreak of watching that love fall part. The Scott Pilgrim series was unique in that it employed a not-so-subtle metaphor for the struggle of overcoming your partner’s baggage: literally fighting it to the death. Not only must you learn about your girlfriend’s history with other men, you must defeat her former suitors in Street Fighter-style brawls. Only once you wrestle these demons – and win – can your relationship be fruitful. On the nose? Maybe. Intensely entertaining? Definitely.
Michael Cera stars as Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old Canadian slacker trapped in a perpetual state of arrested development. He spends his day sleeping and, well that’s about it. He sponges off his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who takes it all in good humour. His rare moments of consciousness are taken up by music rehearsal with his long-suffering band-mates Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill). He’s spent the past twelve months recovering from an epic breakup with Envy Adams (Brie Larson) and is now stringing along high school student Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), because it’s “uncomplicated” (more like “easy”). Scott lives in a universe all about “he”. That is, until “she” comes along.
“She” is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a sardonic, slightly cruel American who pervades Scott’s dreams. It’s love at first sight – for him, anyway. He coerces her to go on a couple of dates, and she’s drawn to his clumsy, innocent ways. Enter: conflict. Just as Scott is ready to learn about Ramona’s past, he’s beat down by a series of mysterious assailants. Of course, these mysterious assailants are her past. Her seven evil exes in fact – a league of Ramona’s former flames intent on controlling her love life – who he will need to destroy if he wishes to claim Ramona’s hand. Time to man up, Scotty. Even Mario had to save the princess from that pesky Donkey Kong.
Wright is a perfect fit for this material. Whereas his previous films hilariously satirised zombie movies and action flicks, here he takes on video games, or at least the video game generation. He dismantles stereotypes in both brutally barbaric and loving fashion. The film is both a celebration and a (gentle) condemnation of the slacker life. He teases, yet ultimately embraces, all the indie kids, skaters, cinephiles, wannabe rockers, drama geeks, shoe-gazers, manic-pixie-dreamgirls, Ellen Page-esque heroines and even Michael Cera-esque heroes (that is to say, the film’s core audience). Wright is a born filmmaker, but we’ve known that since Spaced. Here he proves himself to be a born storyteller. He’s made us care deeply for the characters in three movie spoofs in a row. Try that Friedberg and Seltzer.
It’s impossible for me to separate my review of the film from my obvious generational bias. However, there are elements of Scott Pilgrim vs The World that are just better than most of the films we’ve seen this year. As an adaptation, it’s exquisite. Screenwriter Michael Bacall expertly distills six deeply-detailed books into a single, rollicking narrative (attention Melissa Rosenberg). He and Wright manage to squeeze all of O’Malley’s major characters in the film, while the impeccable cast retains all of their nuances. The fight scenes are better executed and the action better paced than any other recent blockbuster. The comic’s purists will have a hard time coming to terms with the differences between their beloved original and this new edition. Although the film begins as a slavish interpretation of O’Malley’s first few books (right down to chapter headings), the film’s final third veers off into slightly different territory. But it works. It’s not better than the comic’s perfect finale, but it’s far from worse. And frankly, I couldn’t have envisioned a better translation of one of my favourite tales.
It would be remiss to not heap praise upon the film’s cast, from Cera (who proves with this and Youth in Revolt that he is much more than a one trick pony) to the teensy Abigail Chu (a pint-seized drummer who appears in maybe three shots, and scores three big laughs). The exes are a parade of hilarious comic performances, courtesy of Satya Bahba, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman, Brandon Routh and twins Shota and Keita Saito. And let’s not forget the film’s big bad, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman, setting the bar for “movie douchebaggery” higher than even William Atherton could achieve). The film’s delighted, incredulous chorus includes Pill (an acerbic wonder), Webber (a firecracker full of nerves), Culkin (almost unnervingly charming) and Anna Kendrick as Scott’s snarky teen sister. Ellen Wong – greatly expanding upon her character’s annoying comic incarnation – brings an effervescent charisma to the perky Knives Chau.
But what of “she”? Mary Elizabeth Winstead is given the film’s most difficult role – making Scott/us fall in love with her in between bouts of furious cartoon violence. It’s true that the film does not compare with the comic in terms of exploring their relationship. But, credit where credit is due. A slight rejigging of the story by Bacall and Wright, and the film becomes something different – a companion piece, meaningful in its own way. This is not the story of Scott and Ramona falling in love; it’s about two silly, cruel kids learning to grow up and realise that they could find love with one another. They’ve both hurt their fair share of partners – each other included. But that’s all part of the game. And it’s up to them if they want to continue. Scott Pilgrim vs The World proves that love isn’t merely a battlefield; it’s a MMORPG. You can’t do it on your own.