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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: A Super-Duper-ficial World

Michael Cera in a promotional image for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

3 out of 4 stars


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

  • Directed by Edgar Wright
  • Written by Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright
  • Starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

For years now, people have been complaining that movies are turning into video games and comic books. English director Edgar Wright ( Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), takes the approach that movies have been far too reticent. His new film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is as vibrant as a cluttered wall of graffiti, jumpy enough to risk retina damage.

This busy, fizzy visual concoction, in the occasional quiet moment, can be recognized as taking place in the city of Toronto, the locale of a series of a half-dozen cultishly-revered graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley. O'Malley's stories depict the life of an underachieving, part-time bass player, who must defeat his girlfriend's seven "evil exes" to win her heart.

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Shot by Bill Pope (the same cinematographer as The Matrix films), Scott Pilgrim is one of those films that exist, not as a record of reality, but as a creation in movie-screen space. The screen divides like a time-lapse image of cellular mitosis. The words "whoosh," "thonk" and "ding-dong" appear on the screen. The word "love" appears as a pink puff of gas. The allusions here aren't to other movies but to newer media - comics, text messages and video games. Here, nostalgia doesn't mean old cars or classic rock radio; it's visual allusions to arcade games such as Mortal Kombat, Pac-Man and Super Mario.

If all that sounds a bit bombastic for those waiting for the latest Jane Austen adaptation, take heart. There's a literary precedent here. Scott Pilgrim (whose name comes from a song by 90s Halifax girl band Plumtree) is a modern incarnation of James Thurber's protagonist in his 1939 short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a "Walter Mitty" as "an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs."

The modern Japanese equivalent would be "otaku" - a manga, video-game-obsessed shut-in, lacking in social skills. Scott (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old whose younger sister (Anna Kendrick) calls "chronically enfeebled."

As for the "fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs" - they begin after Scott meets the magnetic, purple-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who roller-skates through his dream into his life. She's a preternaturally confident delivery girl who changes her hair colour to a bright new shade every week and a half and comes with weighty baggage: To date her, Scott must transform from wallflower to whupass master.

The video-game-style battles go by in a series of set-piece flurries as Scott confronts enemies that include a pompous movie star (Chris Evans) and his horde of stunt doubles on the steps of Casa Loma, and a vegan stud ( Superman Returns star Brandon Routh), confronted after a concert at Toronto rock club Lee's Palace. At the ultimate game level, he confronts a weasely showbiz agent (Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, Scott must deal with his own history, his heartbroken ex-girlfriend-turned-stalker, Knives, and another former-girlfriend-turned-rock-star, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), a.k.a The Girl Who Kicked his Heart in the Ass. That's not to forget his well-defined fellow band members from Sex Bob-Omb, (Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons and Alison Pill).

A movie that bears some of the burdens of originality, Scott Pilgrim is exhilar-austing and super-duper-ficial. Wright and co-screenwriter Michael Bacall manage to keep this sprawling cast of characters and story coherent, and often startlingly funny, but the opportunities for identifying with these characters are limited. The casting of Michael Cera as the familiar, puppy-eyed anti-hero feels like narrative shorthand, obviating the necessity for explaining Scott's history. Other characters are quick-sketch assemblages of brief quirky traits and in-jokes. You need to take a step back to see the emotional heart of the story, an allegory of a generation struggling to exchange the solipsistic Xbox triumphs for awkward real-world love and empathy.

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