If one were to judge the book by its cover, then Edgar Wright’s ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ – the opening film of ICON TLV – would be this year’s ‘Speed Racer’- a dazzling avant-garde light show to its defenders, ADD hipster excessiveness at its most obnoxious to its detractors. I fell somewhere in the middle on that film. And when it comes to the excessive mis-en-scène of ‘Scott Pilgrim’, I also fall somewhere in the middle. But under the gloss, jump cuts (often within a single frame) and at times exhausting surface of this film, there lies a rather mature romantic comedy. That depth, however, takes its time in rearing its head, which inexorably ties the success or failure of the film to one’s enjoyment of the excess…not an easy task, considering the milieu director Wright is dealing with.
First of all, the film is an adaptation of a popular comic book (one which I am entirely unfamiliar with), and it takes the comic form as a model – like ‘Sin City’, Wright’s scenes try to mimic the visual experience of a comic-book, breaking up the image into a few different frames, having characters remain in place through setting changes and time-lapses, having sound effects spelled out on screen…there’s a bewildering amount of visual information in this film. Then there’s the video game motif. The influence of modern video game aesthetics can be seen in recent films likes ‘300’, ‘District 9’ and ‘Kick-Ass’, particularly the ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty’ first-person-shooter genre. ‘Scott Pilgrim’s frame of reference, however, is the gaming world of director Edgar Wright’s youth- arcade games like ‘Street Fighter’ and the old SEGA games – games in which when a villain is killed, he disintegrates into coins (the point earned for the kill), with bonus lives for high-scores.
These elements are integrated throughout the film, the story of which (in its broad strokes) is also structured like a video game. In order to be with his dream-girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), 22 year-old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) must first defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends, each with their unique power. Each ex is tougher than the last, with the last fight being a ‘Big Boss’ fight, with Scott facing the arch-villain behind it all. That’s all well and good, but Scott is hardly the chivalrous hero. When we first meet him, he is still mourning being dumped by his mythical ex (over a year prior). He is unemployed, sharing a bed with a gay friend (the terrific Kieran Culkin), while trying to get a gig with his band (Called Sex Bob-omb). And as if that isn’t enough, he’s immature and kind of a dick. His first foray into romance after being dumped is with Knives Chow, a 17-year old Catholic school girl, who he tries his best to avoid and ignore after seeing Ramona. He strings Knives along before unceremoniously dumping her….not the most noble of heroes.
What’s really holding Scott back is his inability to deal with a break-up in terms other than ‘instigator’ and ‘victim’, and it is that flaw, – not the seven evil exes – that drives this movie home. By the movie’s end, Scott says to himself “I think I learned something”. He may think he’s being ironic, but the fact is, he really has learned something. Whether or not one is invested enough to give a damn at that point is questionable, however, and I am skeptical of this film’s ability to make an impact with those unfamiliar with the video-game tropes used and/or Edgar Wright fans. I found myself tired of the constant barrage of stuff this movie throws out, but Wright’s abilities – his previous features (‘Shawn of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’, are, like ‘Scott Pilgrim’ both genre comedies with a surprising amount of real emotion along with the fun schtick) kept me more or less constantly engaged, and more than once reveling in the awesomeness of the epic fights with the exes. Wright’s balancing act doesn’t work as successfully as it did in his previous films, but ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ is fun, exciting, touching and certainly one of the better entertainments to reach theaters in 2010.