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August 18, 2010

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Movie Review – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

by HELEN GEIB

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was made to expose generational and cultural divides.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) does not actually have to take on the entire world, but the hyperbole may be forgiven. He is contentedly going about his slacker lifestyle, practicing with his garage band and playing at an innocent romance with high-schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), when he sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) for the first time. It’s love at first sight, for him at least, but the path of love never did run smooth. Chatting her up at a party is enough to put Scott on the hit list of Ramona’s “seven evil exes,” who challenge him to a series of duels to the death. On the plus side, the fact he is undeterred in his efforts to date her makes a positive impression on Ramona.

Scott and Ramona are surprisingly well-matched; neither is admirable, both seek to remake themselves. Ramona is a chronic breaker of hearts. In Scott’s words, she is always the dumper, never the dumpee. Scott also has left a string of trampled hearts behind him, and is the type of man who puts off breaking up with his sweetly innocent girlfriend after he’s met someone else because it’s so much easier to just let these things slide. The audience’s liking for Scott derives from reflexive sympathy for the young man desperately in love, Cera’s high likability factor, and the natural impulse to side with a person suddenly and seemingly randomly attacked by wild-eyed foes.

Though evidently crazed and in some cases obnoxious, with the exception of mastermind/evil ex no. 7 Gideon (Jason Schwartzman) the “evil exes” are not, in fact, particularly evil. (At least, not aside from their inexplicable challenging of Scott to duels to the death, which in any case Gideon put them up to.) They are in addition, in Ramona’s own telling, hapless victims in her game of love. Beneath the comedy there is a real tension between the film’s invitation to take Scott and Ramona’s romance and respective emotional journeys to maturity seriously, and the audience’s reluctance to take seriously a film in which not-evil exes and a few random bouncers are transmuted to loose change without a second thought.

The film is first a comedy however, and a very good one. It is second an action movie. Romance and character drama vie for a distant third.

There are clues early on that the characters of Scott Pilgrim, despite the film’s nominal setting in a wintry Toronto, are in fact living inside a video game. For instance, the mixed media presentation of the members of Scott’s circle of friends and family. The character introductions are portrait-like shots with text labels giving the characters’ names and a few humorous and/or cutting words summarizing their place in the circle, the shot transitions dizzyingly rapid.

The duels confirm the video game setting. Scott and his opponents are revealed as martial arts adepts out of a Hong Kong kung fu movie. No explanation is proffered for Scott’s inexplicable fighting prowess. It simply is. In some cases, the exes also have supernatural powers; “players” use objects of power; each contest is fought on a unique stage; and Scott “levels up” with each victory.

The visuals also embrace the story’s comic book origins. (The film was adapted from a series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.) The image that accompanies this post illustrates the panel-like shot composition of some scenes. Ramona’s accounts of her romantic history are illustrated with comic bookish line drawings. The Asian film-inflected fantasy elements in some of the fights are also suggestive of comic art.

Scott Pilgrim is crammed with references to a wide range of media: video games and comic books; television and films; pop music and youth culture. Even the most attentive viewer could not possibly catch them all on a single viewing, even if that ideal viewer was as thoroughly steeped in pop culture as the filmmakers. The film bombards the audience with visual and aural stimuli. It is immensely inventive and clever and consistently amusing, but at close to two hours a trifle wearying.

Which begs the question, who is the audience for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Although a year younger than director/co-writer Edgar Wright, at 35 this reviewer felt herself at the upper limit of the target audience’s age range. First-hand engagement with the video game and comic book culture that are the film’s dominant inspirations (as opposed to second-hand engagement through the intermediaries of Hollywood adaptations) will push the age-limit higher. Conversely, being young is not everything; a college student who plays sports instead of video games will still miss many of the references, even if she did come of age in the new media era and is acculturated to sensory overload.

3 stars


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Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)

Commentary Track review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Nir Shalev.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s high level of referentiality invites comparison with Kick-Ass (reviews pro and con).

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aaron
    Aug 21 2010

    From the moment Zelda music started playing at the beginning, I knew I would love this film.

    I thought it may have run a little over-long, but it was a blast indeed!

  2. Helen
    Aug 23 2010

    I’m feeling the generation gap. I don’t even know what/who Zelda is.

    I shouldn’t over-emphasize the importance of “getting” the pop culture references though; it’s a funny movie even without those. A lot of the comedy is right at the surface, in the characters, situations, dialogue, and physical comedy.

  3. Nir Shalev
    Aug 24 2010

    I hadn’t seen it yet (I’m going to sometime this or next week) but from what I gather it’s the best video game movie ever made and it’s not based on video games. It references video games throughout and succeeds in evoking the right atmos but isn’t based on games, which is neat.

  4. Aaron
    Aug 24 2010

    Helen, The Legend of Zelda is a Nintendo game series about a Elvish like character named Link who explores dungeons to rescue a princess named Zelda. The first game in the series was released in 1987 on the Nintendo video game console.

    @Nir:

    I would have to agree with that assertion.

  5. Doc
    Aug 29 2010

    The film received a far more generous budget than its likely target audiences can repay. The editing and effects make it an enjoyable riot of color, light, fantasy, and kinetic energy.

  6. Aug 30 2010

    I heard that it made half of it’s budget back in Ontario alone. But I’m not certain as to whether that’s a fact or just a rumor.

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