If Inception is a video game that becomes interactive only after it’s over, when you compare notes with other fans, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a video game you watch someone else play. That might not sound like much fun, but this movie is an upper, thanks to its inventive video game/cartoon visuals, crisp editing and constant stream of wry observational barbs.
Director Edgar Wright found his own way to animate the black-and-white graphic novels his movie is based on, adding bright colors but keeping a comic-book look. Figures are frequently silhouetted or shot in very bright or dark lighting, and cartoonish graphics often pop up on the screen, like the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” and lightning bolts that emanate from Scott’s band when they play; the pink hearts that float up from their lips as he kisses Ramona, the girl of his dreams; and the way the snow melts in Ramona’s wake as she rollerblades down Toronto sidewalks. The dreamlike editing helps too, as characters move from one setting to another without comment or cuts, the conversation or background music simply continuing as the background changes.
That talk is mostly done in irreverent shorthand, full of tossed-off little jokes that convey the smart-verging-on-smartass skepticism and painful self-awareness of Scott and his twentysomething friends. The casual swipes taken in passing at easy but worthy targets like desperate self-promotion and self-righteous veganism and the fleeting references to things like skimming emails or getting text messages faster than the speed of light also help ground this airy fantasy firmly in the present.
The plot is skimpy but clever: In order to win the gravely self-protective Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Scott (Michael Cera) has to defeat all the bad exes who made her throw up those near-unscalable walls. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is Scott’s version of his life story, so he clashes with the evil exes showily and one at a time, video-game style. After each win he advances to the next level until finally he faces himself in the solo round. That’s a pretty neat little metaphor for the work we all have to do when we start new relationships, and it’s done with a light enough touch to feel funny rather than labored.
There’s been the usual backlash against Michael Cera in this part, but his soulful faux-naïveté, big brown eyes, and limp-noodle physique felt right to me for Scott, an aimless Toronto 22-year-old so geeky he’s almost cool—at least in his own mind. Seeing everything through Scott’s eyes turns the movie into an emotional gauntlet: nearly everyone he encounters seems to be as obsessed with his love life as he is. Though he’s too busy worrying about himself to notice what he’s doing to anyone else for the most part, his subconscious must be uneasy, as he’s constantly running into women who tell him off, from his little sister, Stacey (the icily acerbic Anna Kendrick), to his ex-girlfriend and bandmate Kim (Alison Pill, who makes monotone rage very funny) to his frenemy Julie (Aubrey Powers), who calls him “a ladykiller-wannabe jerky jerk.” (There’s a nice running joke about all the part-time jobs Julie has, which make her pop up almost everywhere Scott goes. “Is there anywhere you don’t work?” he asks her.) He’s also plagued by the lovely and touchingly un-ironic Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a high school student he strings along until he meets Ramona and then can’t shake off.
Some of Scott’s battles went on long enough to lose me (did we really need to see the self-righteous vegan throw him through a wall twice?). And after all that obsessing about who he should be with, it was frustrating to see him wind up with Ramona, who seems more like his babysitter than his date, when he’s so much more at ease with the fiercely loyal and bravely cheerful Knives. That undercuts the central drama for me, making the whole movie feel light to the point of weightlessness.
But emotional detachment didn’t keep me from enjoying Scott Pilgrim at least as much as Shaun of the Dead and a lot more than Hot Fuzz, Wright’s other big hits. Those two got their laughs from spoofing genre clichés, while Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bypasses cliché to create its own look and feel. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment, and it makes this featherweight fantasy a lot of fun to watch.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.