A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2010

Rank:  #10


2010, PG-13, 112 mins.


Michael Cera: Scott Pilgrim / Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Ramona Flowers / Kieran Culkin: Wallace Wells / Chris Evans: Lucas Lee / Anna Kendrick: Stacey Pilgrim / Alison Pill: Kim Pine / Ellen Wong: Knives Chau

Directed by Edgar Wright / Written by Michael Bacall and Wright, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The tagline of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD states that the film is “an epic of epic epicness.”  

They weren’t kidding.   

This is also a movie first: an American film adaptation based on a Canadian comic book directed by a Brit starring a Canuck and filmed in the Great White North.  It’s also possibly the very first film I’ve seen that manages to involve, in random order: rock & roll music, sly satire, videogame references both big and small, larger-than-life comic book super heroes and villains, a coming of age love story, and…yes…gravity defying kung fu mayhem.  Is it just me, or is just about every romantic dramedy made all the more better by the addition of martial arts? 

SCOTT PILGRIM is an utterly assaultive auditory-visual experience…but I mean that in the most sincere and complimentary manner possible.  I have never seen a film with this one’s unlimited supply of hyper-caffeinated energy and vitality.  SCOTT PILGRIM is madly and obsessively in love with its source material – the 2004-2010 digest sized black and white graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley - and there is rarely a moment when this does not show.  That is the source of its ultimate strength: the film’s unapologetic embracing of the spastically goofy and eccentric vibe of O’Malley’s Canadian comics alongside its cheeky and wickedly subversive parody of the video game aesthetics of yesteryear make it an audaciously ambitious original.  Very rarely can a critic believably use the terms “you have not seen anything quite like it,” but in SCOTT PILGRIM’s case…there’s no other real way to slice it. 

I called the film “assaultive.”  Maybe that was a tad too harsh sounding.  Perhaps I should have labeled the experience of seeing it as a brash, bizarre, absurd, and hallucinogenic rush.  That’s sounds better.  The film places its foot on the gas pedal and never lets go.  Some critics have labored away by calling the film “over-stylized” and too "relentlessly frantic" for its own good.  To the contrary, it's SCOTT PILGRIM’s colorful, offbeat, and effervescent liveliness that makes it stand out.  After awhile, it’s next to impossible to not find the film kind of oddly infectious.  That, and it's not all style for the sake of putting something expressive of screen.  The film has a droll sophistication and intelligence with the material: It intuitively understands its targets, but it also knows how to poke fun and mock them with a good natured and level heart.     

Even better?  This is a film that takes place in my home country of Canada (Toronto, to be precise) and instead of engaging in ham-invested cultural stereotypes and crude jokes, SCOTT PILGRIM makes its modestly fabled Ontario settings become a side character itself.  The snow-covered cityscape is home to the title hero (Michael Cera), a 23-year-old bass guitarist rocker for the amusingly named “Sex Bob-omb” that is a real softy at heart.  He lives with his homosexual roommate (played with an urbanity and slickly relaxed coolness by Kieran Culkin) and has a 17-year-old high school-attending girlfriend (Ellen Wong).  Despite his bandmates protesting his dating of a girl that they think is too young, Scott still remains a fixture in the girl’s life.  Even though Scott believes the relationship is getting serious, it is actually hilariously chaste: the couple have not had sex, nor have they even kissed.  Hell, they have not even held hands yet…but they came close. 

One night changes everything for Scott.  While attending a party he locks eyes with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, effortlessly mixing low key sex appeal, sassiness, adorability, and a sardonic wit and edge) and he's instantly fixated.  His early attempts at wooing her are total failures, but he does learn through a source that she is a Yankee that has moved up to Canada and is now a delivery girl for Amazon (.ca, not .com!).  Scott hatches a plan: he places an order with the online merchant and will wait by the door as long as humanly possible for her to deliver the package so he can ask her out.  Well, they do meet again, and despite the awkwardness of his invite, she begrudgingly agrees to spend an evening with him.  Very slowly and very surely, Ramona begins to open up to Scott and they both look on the verge of a tangible relationship. 

It is at this precise point where the film makes a sharp and sudden detour into its fantasy trappings.  Scott soon learns, to his horror and incredulity, that he not only must win over Ramona’s love, but he also must…uh…defeat all of her seven – count ‘em…seven! – very evil ex-boyfriends (make that six boyfriends and one bi-curious female friend) in single, STREET FIGHTER-esque street battles that are amped up to the level of that bombastic and crazed video game.  I am not exaggerating here at all.  Scott’s epic confrontations with his enemies are like living, breathing video games: the laws of physics are ignored, gravity is totally defied, and characters (including Scott) are able to launch and hurl themselves into the air like Neo from THE MATRIX while brandishing magical weapons or unforeseen super powers.  When Scott defeats an ex, they are not just kissing pavement, but they literally explode into hundreds of coins that Scott then captures in the form of points.  When he has accumulated enough he will be able to fight the final “big boss” that will allow him to wrap the game, so to speak, and win the chance to date Ramona.   

The final boss in question is actually a slimy executive working for the same record label that may or may not have an interest in sponsoring Scott’s rock group.  He is Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman, having fun playing a categorical sleazy jerk), who represents the one ex that has the most Svengali like power over Ramona.  The other exes that Scott must battle before Gideon are a riotously funny motley crew.  I will not spoil all of the fun of revealing them all, but my single favorite would be the third evil ex, Todd Ingram (a surprisingly hysterical Brandon Routh, most recently the Man of Steel himself in SUPERMAN RETURNS) that happens to be the bass guitarist for one of Scott’s ex’s band, THE CLASH OF DEMONHEAD.  Todd is a vegan and has very special psychic vegan abilities and powers that Scott has no apparent defenses against.  Scott does discover Todd's kryptonite: he tricks him into drinking half and half (that – gasp! – includes dairy products), which leaves Todd permanently stripped of his abilities.  Oh…Todd is also arrested by…yup…the Vegan Police that, after disposing of him, give themselves a ceremonial high five. 

SCOTT PILGRIM is…like…so unattainably weird…but the more I sat through it the more I was willing to be taken away in its pageantry of ludicrousness.  The film, beyond its inherent nuttiness, also has moments of devious satire.  There is one sequence where Scott returns home to his crummy apartment that is clearly a send-up of TV sitcoms, even going as far as using the SEINFELD theme and laugh track.  Then there is a running gag that makes a funny stance on the hypocrisy of the MPAA itself: one character in the film clearly throws out F-bombs left and right, but her enunciation is warped and her lips are obscured by a black box every time she utters the foul word .  We know she is saying it, but it’s censored in such a way to ensure SCOTT PILGRIM’s PG-13 rating while simultaneously maintaining the word’s edge in the dialogue.  Very, very clever. 

The film is not meant, though, to be vulgar: it’s just too madcap, neon-colored, speedy, and playful with its look and feel.  The film was directed by Edgar Wright, who is no stranger to hilarious send-ups (he made the funniest film about zombies in SHAUN OF THE DEAD as well as a very smart and savvy homage to action film overkill in HOT FUZZ) and here he takes his own self-anointed passion for comic books, video games, and pop culture to a whole new level.  Using cinematographer Bill Pope (THE MATRIX trilogy), Wright lovingly evokes the world and universe of O’Malley’s magna series with such a nitpicky eye for detail, so much so that shots and scenes themselves look ripped right off of the artists’ page.  SCOTT PILGRIM is a absolute triumph of visual design and editing: screen formats and aspect ratios frequently morph and change at will; split screens are used to reflect the comic books origins of the source material; swooshing sound effects are cranked up, altered and modified; and subtitles, text, graphical icons, and motion lines are playfully splashed all over the screen, suggesting the video games that influence it.  This film is just alive. 

Finally…shove this up you mind:  has there ever been a less likely action hero/romantic leading man in movie history than Michael Cera?  He’s meek-looking, soft-spoken, insecure and has a sort of ordinary, everyday reticent charm and awkward, puppy dog vulnerability (that, and he is a self-deprecating master of carefully timed deadpan banter).  In the film he plays both earthy, sincere, and reserved, but when required he’s a one-man, drop kicking, sword slicing, guitar licking, ass kicking squad.  Yet, for as visually ostentatious and frantic as the visuals are in SCOTT PILGRIM, Cera still manages to infuse a tenderness and heroic soul into its brazenly mythical, over-the-top theatrics.  Yes, Wright’s distillation of O’Malley’s source material will be very hard for many lay filmgoers to handle, to be sure, but for those shrewd enough to have both lived through and experienced the wired-in MTV, Nintendo age as well as understanding the visual dynamism of comic books, then SCOTT PILGRIM will be appreciated on a cult level for its breathless, unleashed imagination and free-spirited, let’s-do-anything panache.  The film lunges out with a reverence for its influences and empowers itself with an unmatched idiosyncratic quirkiness…and heart…let’s not forget that.  After all, Mr. Pilgrim is just a twenty-something that’s just trying to fall in love.  He just has much, much harder obstacles in the way.

  H O M E