Before I get going into this review, I need to say one thing about Edgar Wright’s body of work. It is uniformly brilliant. I don’t feel like I need to say anything other than this. He is a filmmaker that is impossibly good at understanding the genres he works in while simultaneously lampooning and deconstructing them. More important than that, his work shares one constant: the power of love. It comes in the form of friendship (Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead); it comes in the form of true love (Shaun and Liz in Shaun, and arguably Nick Angel and Butterman in Hot Fuzz).
The closest thing that Edgar Wright had done to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was probably Spaced. It carries a certain amount of video game logic and is chiefly a look at a “couple” surrounded by a cast of characters. I’m not going to say much more about Spaced because it’s something you should be watching. The point I’m making is that, despite whatever wacky circumstances are being tossed up on the screen, there’s a heart, a core of real emotion and real feeling that is what keeps us watching in the first place.
Scott Pilgrim, however, is devoid of anything resembling actual human emotion. It’s a hollow, if gorgeous, wreck.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a twenty-three year-old slacker playing bass in a garage band called Sex Bob-omb, along with “the talent” Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), the angry, snarky drummer. Scott is also dating a seventeen year-old Chinese girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). It is a little creepy. All that changes when Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It all becomes terribly complicated when Scott, in order to go out with Ramona, is forced to defeat her seven evil exes, who are organized into the League of Evil Exes by chief ex Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). Fortunately, Scott’s the best fighter in the city, but can he keep up with increasingly more powerful exes and learning more and more about Ramona’s checkered past?
Going into this movie, I was worried the most about one thing: Michael Cera. His inability to play anything other than variations on George Michael Bluth made me almost write him off entirely when I heard he was cast in this picture. Scott Pilgrim is not a mumbly, soft-spoken hipster. He’s a little crazy, a little hyper, and prone to anime-esque outbursts when not performing 64-hit combos. That said, I was really surprised that Michael Cera eeked out a pretty OK performance. He’s still very clearly entrenched in a certain kind of character, but I could see that he was at least trying to stretch himself. He’s by no means the standout performance; that trophy goes to Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott’s gay roommate that’s about as too cool for school as one can get.
Ramona is made more or less emotionless by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, delivering mostly in a deadpan monotone that could be interpreted as jaded or quietly snarky. She sounded more bored to me. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty entertaining, standouts being evil ex Todd Ingram, played with moronic perfection by Brandon Routh, and Kim as the angry voice in the back of the room constantly (and correctly) reminding Scott what a bastard he is.
I’m dancing around getting into the meat of my opinions on Scott Pilgrim because, for everything I hated, there’s some good, entertaining stuff going on. The centerpiece evil ex fights, mainly the first three, offer a lot of very cool action beats, and Edgar Wright brings all of his high energy camera work to bear. There are video game references out the wazoo. If you’re they kind of person who will squeal with delight a little when someone plays the bass line from Final Fantasy 2, you’ll probably want to see this movie just to watch how all the video game stuff plays out.
Scott Pilgrim is, in a sense, a video game movie, despite being an adaptation of a graphic novel. It’s a video game movie that actually allows itself to behave like a video game. Fight sequences begin with Street Fighter 2-esque life bars and “Ready? FIGHT!!” It’s all very slick, and very cool. We also get a lot of shoutouts to the film’s graphic novel origins with your onomatopoeia sound effects popping up on screen. It’s silly, but they offer some fun little touches here and there.
As a fan of the comic source, I want to talk for a minute about the differences between the two. It’s important to note that the film was originally optioned and written before even the fifth of six volumes had been released, so there are necessarily some major differences, especially in the last third of the movie. Honestly, the cuts and changes made are improvements over the comics. Three of the seven exes manage to get pretty heavily shortchanged, but they also happened to be the three least interesting ones from the comic, so I can’t say that movie-going audiences are missing a lot. The ending of the comic, while satisfying, got a bit muddled and overcomplicated, tossing large, nonsensical plot twists at us for the sake of tying up a few loose ends, and it detracted from the overall quality. In the film, however, things manage to tie themselves together in a more satisfying and significantly less convoluted manner.
It does try to toss in a last minute (as in, two minutes before the credits roll) twist on us, but it seems to realize that such an asinine twist completely negates all of the action that has come before it and backpedals quickly. Also, in probably my favorite moment from the movie, the deus ex machina that manages to give Scott an edge is 110% video games in the best possible way.
At the end of the day though, it becomes very difficult to enjoy all the cool special effects, because as the movie progresses, it begins to dawn on you that all of the film’s events are hollow. Meaningless, even. As I’ve stated before, the film lacks any kind of emotional core. We’re told of Scott’s struggle with himself, trying to become a better person for the sake of Ramona, but we don’t see it. Ramona informs Scott, and the audience, that she’s, “dabbled in being a bitch,” but other than a string of dumped boyfriends, what evidence do we have that she’s undergoing any kind of emotional trauma or feeling at all? It plays out like a Michael Bay movie: a lot of very cool shit is happening on screen, and it’s enjoyable, but the moment you step back and ask, “Ok, but why?,” the magic disappears. All we’re left with are some truly cool action sequences, but without the emotion to back them up, they’re just as hollow as everything else
Every good thing –and there is good here– is backed up by the larger, looming specter that is the emotional vacuum the film creates by making it nigh impossible to understand, and thus empathize, with either Scott or Ramona. That which you could call “good,” is less that and more “entertaning,” and frankly, that’s not good enough. Getting in a good solid chuckle courtesy of Kieran Culkin does not salvage this. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake simple does not work when the underlying message is about emotional baggage and loss and the regrets we all have to live with.
So, is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really a game-changer? Visually, perhaps. If nothing else, it will give a precedence that lets video game movies really embrace their roots, rather than try to fit an interactive experience into a non-interactive media. There is some fun to be had here, that much is certain, but it all comes at the expense of the film’s larger goal. A movie about relationships where you just can’t wind up caring about the two people you’re supposed to care about has failed completely.
Overall Score: 5.00 – Bad. I’m now far less likely to pick up the comic on which this movie was based, and am slightly concerned for the people who have been pushing it on me. You can read his full review here.
Overall Score: 6.85 – Okay. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the most visually-delightful movies released this year. However, it’s mostly style over substance. If you have ANY interest in the Scott Pilgrim universe, I highly suggest reading the comics before you watch the movie.You can read his full review here.