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.
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