We are the heroes of our own lives and we view the world through our passions and our heartbreaks, our defeats and our triumphs. In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scott Pilgrim may be a dork/goof/slacker/quasi-jerk but he’s the hero of his life and willing to fight for the girl of his dreams as he traverses a world made of videogames, indie rock, kung-fu, romance, comedy, and Canada. Co-writer and director Edgar Wright has taken the tale of Scott Pilgrim and crafted a picture that is joyous, exciting, heartfelt, honest, blazingly original, and a work of pure brilliance that is easily one of the best films of the year.
“Once upon a time, in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada…”
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) has met the girl of his dreams in the beautiful, beguiling, Amazon.ca delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After a false start (It’s best not to use the origin of Pac-Man’s name as your pick-up line), the two hit it off and it looks like their relationship will be peaches and power-ups. There’s just one tiny condition: if Scott wants to keep dating Ramona, he has to defeat her seven evil exes in a fight to the death. If Scott wins, he gets coins and continues on as Ramona’s boyfriend. If he loses, well…death.
It may be tough to see Michael Cera as an action-hero for those who say that he plays the same character in every movie. Those people are only about 5-10% right when it comes to Scott Pilgrim. There are the little Cera mannerisms—muttering, trailing off—but once he hits his stride about ten minutes into the movie, you’re going to see a performance that will force you to reconsider your whole opinion of the guy. In Scott Pilgrim, Cera is effervescent, bumbling, goofy, and a total badass.
However, his chemistry with Winstead isn’t as strong as it should be. The two are fine together, but you never get the feeling that they love each other. Keep in mind, Scott is risking his life to be with her, but the movie could use a few lighter moments between the two. Ramona is supposed to be aloof, but sometimes she’s so distant that it seems like she’s barely in the relationship.
With seven evil exes, two romantic leads, plus Scott’s friends, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has a big cast and it’s remarkable that everyone develops a distinct character no matter the amount of screen time they may have. If there’s one standout among the supporting cast, it has to be Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace Wells. Wallace has some of the best lines, but he can also be a real jerk to Scott. The trick to Wallace is making sure that jerkiness comes off as tough love and Culkin pulls it off beautifully. Scott’s a lovable character and we feel protective of him, but Culkin has such delightful charisma and comic timing that we side with Wallace when it comes time to force Scott to man up.
Even though he’s the standout, Culkin’s gives one of the many great performances in the film. Ellen Wong does a wonderful job as Knives Chau, the 17-year-old, adorable firebrand whose adoration of Scott is crucial to the film’s central themes. Mae Whiteman plays Ramona’s 4th evil ex and is tasked with saying some painfully (and intentionally) corny lines and makes them work beautifully. And Satya Bhabha is wonderfully bizarre as Ramona’s 1st evil-ex, Matthew Patel. Bhabha’s performance is crucial because he has the first fight with Scott and their battle takes a film that was already brimming with energy and jams 20ccs of adrenaline into its soul.
“Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it.”
You’ve never seen fights like the ones in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. They’re martial arts battles infused with the power of rock and laced with classic videogames. And for the hell of it, the fight with Patel also has a little Bollywood dance number mixed in. It’s a lot to throw at the audience and you actually need the offbeat madness that came before to acclimate yourself to the insane-squared fight scenes. Had the film been completely set in reality, with no written sound effects, info boxes, and Wright’s inherent visual flair, the transition to the fights would hit so hard that you’d be knocked out of the picture. Instead, we’re drawn into the battle and you’ll want to cheer when Scott lands that first K.O. on an evil ex.
The level of detail in these fights is incredible and the attention to detail is astounding. It’s not simply that when Patel hits Scott that the word “SMACK!” appears behind’s Scott’s head. It’s that in the next shot you can see the word fall to the ground and shatter. Wright has said that this movie is like a musical except that instead of breaking out into songs, characters break out into fights. I would argue that these fights are highly-similar to musical numbers. They’re meticulously choreographed, edited, and have a rhythm all their own. It’s like a dance, except the dance ends with one person being shattered into coins.
You also don’t suffer battle fatigue as each fight has its own style in order to match the different special ability of each evil-ex. For instance, Ramona’s 5th and 6th boyfriends, the Katayanagi Twins, use their music to summon double dragons and it’s up to Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb to use their music to fight back with their own videogame-referenced-beast. Even when it’s not being used directly, the music exists in perfect harmony with the fights and with the rest of the movie.
Of course, since Scott is in a band, it’s only natural that the music should be a central element in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Overseen by Nigel Godrich, who is best known for his work with Radiohead, the music is diverse yet cohesive. The score ranges from wandering and melancholy to dirty rock and remixed videogame sound effects. The other main musical voice for the film is Beck who wrote Sex Bob-omb’s songs. The band’s music works because it’s not glossy or over-produced. It sounds like it would be from a struggling little garage band. Throw in other great tracks by Metric, Frank Black, and other artists and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the rare movie where you want to go out and buy the soundtrack and the score.
“You can’t say I don’t know how to put on a show.”
Ramona’s 7th and final evil-ex Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman having more fun playing a villain than should be legally allowed) may be smitten with his own showmanship, but he has nothing on Edgar Wright. Like he did with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright has been inspired from the brilliance of other works and created a work that is inspirational in its own right. But with Scott Pilgrim, Wright has created his most audacious film to date as he pulls from videogame tropes, indie rock sounds, martial arts masterpieces, romantic comedies, and constructed an astounding work of art that will burst your mind into a billion coins.
Scott Pilgrim is a film where people will take the DVD and then match it up with the panels from author Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume comic series. Fans of the books will recognize plenty of shots, but don’t mistake this for a slavishly-loyal comic-book movie. Wright finds a way to honor O’Malley’s artwork and style, but then imbue it with elements unique to cinema. It’s why the edit so important and Scott Pilgrim highlights how that technical aspect distinguishes movies from other artforms. It’s not simply a matter of copying O’Malley’s composition. It’s about how long to hold the shot, the music to apply, the performance required, and every other aspect that was carefully chosen. In every interview I’ve seen with the actors, there’s one thing they all say, “Edgar knew exactly what he wanted.” When you see the breathtaking level of skill in required to create the final product, you can only wonder, “How could he not?”
“This one girl…”
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the best feel-good movie about getting dumped. Break-ups leave scars. They leave us wallowing in self-doubt and in a pile of confused, highly-combustible emotions. Ramona has seven exes who are so hurt and so angry at her that they refuse to let her be the master of her own love-life. And Scott has his own ex-problems as he’s still recovering from getting dumped over a year ago. We all have to deal with our baggage and the baggage of the person we love, otherwise, “You’re just another evil-ex waiting to happen.”
It’s heavy stuff like this that most movies don’t want to deal with. Most movie romances take place as if neither person had ever dated anyone before. If there is an ex in the picture, it’s so one person can feel insecure about losing the other. With Scott Pilgrim, it’s not about Scott being scared of losing Ramona to an evil-ex. It’s about fighting to stay with her. While I wanted some lighter moments between Scott and Ramona, I respect that the movie makes no bones about love being something you continually have to fight for when you want to be with someone and when you’re finally with them. But the film doesn’t need to get all sappy and sentimental because the fight for love are literal fights with punching, reversals, hit combos, bass battles, whip swords, and more. It’s the kind of immature fighting that’s perfectly at Scott’s speed, but Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall know that it’s the battles you’re not prepared for that are the ones most worth fighting.
It’s this kind of thoughtfulness and heart that stops anyone from coming at this movie and saying it’s a shallow piece of hyper-kinetic fluff. The fights have meaning. They’re also super-cool to look at it. Movies are at their best when they not only encourage us to think, but allow us to enjoy the themes, and not be pedantic or preachy.
The movie is not without its faults. As I mentioned before, it takes a little while for Cera to truly come into the character of Scott Pilgrim and the relationship with Ramona feels a bit cold at times. There’s also a bizarre TV gag that’s funny but doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie’s jokes. Also, while I understand that it takes money to make movies, the blatant product placement of Coke Zero is jarring.
But those are nitpicks. My biggest issue with the movie comes at the end. Without going into specifics, I’ll say that at the climax of the movie, it looks like the story is headed towards a unique and exciting an ending that’s rewarding and comes about organically. Then the movie takes a hard-turn and ends in a way that still works, but lacks the thematic resonance of the ending I thought the movie was going to have.
Despite these problems, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking. It has fight scenes that will go down as some of cinema’s all-time best. It has so many great one-liners that you’ll be quoting it long after you leave the theater. It has tiny moments that will have you howling with laughter, brimming with excitement, and slack-jawed with amazement. But most importantly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has a heart. It has a gigantic heart and you cheer for this dorky, goofy, kind-of-jerky slacker who wanders the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada, fighting for the woman he loves.