Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Edgar Wright‘s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” based on a manga-inspired Canadian cult comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley, takes place in an odd parallel universe. We see events in a city that is ostensibly Toronto, and all the characters are Canadian, but this is a universe where sounds effects appear in the air around noisy objects (telephones ring, and a “RING!” will appear above it), and human beings have Energy Bars floating above their heads, á la video games. We are so firmly entrenched in the young Gen-Y characters’ media-hypersaturated idiom, that we see all of life’s conflicts – from romantic dilemmas to merely taking a pee – in terms of video game language and conceits lifted from Japanese manga. This may sound insufferable to some older viewers, and perhaps a bit too clever and cheeky to younger viewers, but Wright actually manages to make this world of fast-paced video game allusions feel relatable and natural; it’s a world where everything is steeped in pop culture, but isn’t overwhelmed by it; a world where the characters themselves are the ones who see the world in pop terms, and not the producers of the film.
That said, it’s tempting to call “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” a defining film of a generation. It’s a sweet romantic comedy that speaks its own language. It is clearly of its time and place, and seems to have the cultural markers of present-day twentysomethings in place. Had it pushed the romance angle a bit harder, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” could be compared to a hyerpactive Cameron Crowe. Or perhaps even Savage Steve Holland.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a Toronto-based twntysomething lout who plays with his mildly talented band, Sex Bob-Omb, and who is having a chaste affair with a 17-year-old Chinese girl names Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). His friends implore that he dump his “fake” girlfriend and get on with his life, but Scott, we kind of intuit, while funny and deadpan, is kind of a lout. He lives with his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and, in a bit of unexplored erotic tension, shares a bed with him and his one-night stands. Scott’s world is turned upsidedown by the appearance of a pink-haired hipster gal named Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with whom he instantly falls in wuv. Scott must now figure out, in his own adolescent indecisiveness, how to dump his old girlfriend and pursue this woman he’s clearly more interested in.
Scott’s central conflict seems to be, however, how COOL he is. He wears snarky t-shirts, and plays in a band, and Knives clearly worships him, but he needs to be seen as COOL in the eyes of this new woman. Most importantly, he has to appear ever cooler than Ramona’s several exes, who each have something going for them. One is a bitter fighter with a team of wicked hipster girls as his posse. One is a handsome vegan who can play the bass really well. One is a skateboarding movie star. One owns a record label. One is, gulp, a girl (and how does a boy compete with that?). To illustrate the conflicts Scott has with these exes, we are shown high-octane, colorful videogame brawls. Fists fly, fireballs are thrown, and, at the end of the battle, the defeated melts into a pile of coins.
The acting in this film is superb, and the cute young cast (and they’re all cute, dammit) knows just how to deliver some of the silly dialogue with a knowing aplomb. It is not one of those insufferably ironic comedies, but is a legitimate comedy that is populated by ironic people. These are not avatars, but real young people who recognize the pop culture idiom which they inhabit. I was especially fond of Culkin, Alison Pill as Scott’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Mark Webber as the put-upon bandleader, Aubrey Plaza as the dirty-mouthed barista, and Jason Schwartzman as the film’s Final Boss. Anna Kendrick also appears, and she’s always a delight.
Strangely, I felt the film was weakest in the casting of Cera. Cera is actually a funny guy, despite his unfortunate reputation as the go-to “quirky” boy. He plays his indecision well, and delivers his jokes with a perfect deadpan humor. We really see what a lout Scott is, and we see why he is in need of redemption and self-respect. But Cera – and this is also the fault of the screenplay – is never rally charming enough; I didn’t understand why someone like Ramona would find him appealing, or why their nascent relationship is worth fighting for. They seem to be in love more as a plot function than as a beautiful romance. Essentially, the film didn’t spend quite enough time establishing the romantic rapport of its central leads before becoming a metaphorical fight film.
But this is only one quibble amongst a high-energy, funny, enjoyable, and even romantic film with its own language and its own original visual style. Wright even gets to make fun of himself in one scene: When Scott gears up for a big fight, as happens in both of Wright’s films to date (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”), he stops for a moment to tie his shoes. This is a delightfully hilarious moment in a climax of machismo.