If there’s one cinematic companion to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that leaps immediately to my mind, it’s not the obvious sugar-rush action movies that director and English national treasure Edgar Wright tends to favor but rather the very genuine and down-to-earth 2007 romantic comedy Knocked Up. Cut out the super-powered bass battles, sword fights, and captioned sound effects (all of which I’ll admit comprise so much of Scott Pilgrim‘s style and sensibility), and both of them contain the same through-line about twenty something slackers whose circumstances impel them to grow up, quickly and albeit haphazardly. I mean to say that beneath the over-the-top surface of Scott Pilgrim lies a pulsing sense of reality that drives the film and allows for its delightfully (and escalatingly) ludicrous plot to unfold.
Of course, these narrative points (among the others that make Scott Pilgrim so damn special) can’t be separated from one another. This is a film so full of innumerable elements and so brimming with “stuff” that it can be enjoyed on a multitude of different strata, perhaps a common observation but one that’s undeniably true. Video game references, movie references, incredibly character work and performance, kinetic and dazzling editing and cinematography, some of the best fight choreography you’ll see all year…and even more than that. It might be accurate to refer to the film as something of a celluloid sugar rush but I think boiling it down to a single label feels uncomfortably Plebeian, especially since at this point it should be known that Wright is a man who is all about the details– the more the better. And that’s the essential selling point of Scott Pilgrim.
The film’s eponymous hero (Michael Cera playing a role I don’t think anyone assumed him capable of) appears to have made a career out of being an insensitive, self-centered and free-loading slacker. He’s dating a high school student (Ellen Wong, one of the film’s many joyous revelations) because it strokes his ego; like a remora hitching a ride on a much more with-it and together shark, he gets by living off of his friend Wallace’s (Kieran Culkin, in full-on scene stealing mode) tiny apartment, contributing nothing in reciprocation. It’s not until the beautiful Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) skates through Scott’s dreams (literally– there’s apparently a subspace highway running right through his brain that makes for an easy shortcut on Ramona’s travel routes as an amazon.ca delivery person) and into his heart that he shows any vested interest in working toward a specific goal.
Of course, building a relationship isn’t easy for Scott when he learns that the object of his affections has a league consisting of her seven evil exes manipulating her love life. Worse than that, they want to kill him for daring to court her.
The lesson here: Love hurts.
If the film’s basic conceit sounds silly, well, it sort of is, but in the very best and most positive ways possible. Scott Pilgrim never feels self-conscious about its plot or the particulars of its narrative, celebrating its inherent ridiculousness rather than being shamed by it. When Scott encounters the first evil ex– who rudely interrupts a set being performed by Sex Bob-omb, the band Scott plays bass for, with a song-and-dance number involving fireballs and demon hipster chicks– he springs into action and displays godly fighting prowess, and we never bat an eye because it is what it is. In the same way that many video games of the day are so inclined to mimic films, so too does Scott Pilgrim mimic video games; gaming logic drives the film’s action. Scott finds each ex progressively tougher than the last, building all the way up to his confrontation with the hip, cool, oily, and totally pretentious Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). And as the film propels itself forward, it all works, and we never question why Scott’s foes explode into piles of coins when he conquers them or how he’s able to survive being thrown into a building. If Mario can do it, why can’t Scott?
But strip the film of the fight scenes and the cartoony captioned sound effects, and you’re left with a story about an irresponsible and directionless young man learning how to grow up in order to gain something he considers meaningful (and a general comment on how my generation has to give up on the pursuit of hipness and coolness in order to move forward). Maybe that dichotomy lies at the heart of Wright’s other works– strip Shaun of the Dead of zombies and you essentially retain the arc about Shaun trying to be a better man for his girlfriend and, well, everyone else– but regardless its presence here gives the story a bit of soul and necessary character drama to keep the otherwise outrageous aspects of the film from taking off and leaving the audience far, far behind. Scott might be a somewhat dim and boorish putz, but his conflicts ground the film and give us something substantive to latch onto outside of the numerous Boss Battles strewn throughout the narrative.
A big part of the reason Scott works as a character? Not to burst the conglomerate bubble of the Michael Cera Hate Parade, but it comes down to Cera’s work playing against type. And make no mistake– Scott Pilgrim represents the polar opposite of the singular character archetype Cera has spent the bulk of his career thus far playing. Unlike the timid, gawky, bookish, and frequently pitiable characters of Cera’s past, Scott is generally the dumbest person in the room (unless Brandon Routh’s thick-as-a-brick Todd Ingram is in that room with him). He’s self-centered in a way that George Michael Bluth never could be while also being more bold– let’s face it, George Michael would never have approached Ramona in a million years. Through all of the differences and the character’s flaws, Cera makes Scott likable or at the very least understandable; we all probably know a Scott, or have known a Scott at one point or another, a person who’s good at heart but utterly wrapped up in themselves to their own detriment and that of those around them. Cera fuses all of this together and comes up with a totally palatable performance while bringing his particular sense of timing to his comedy beats; it’s a totally successful performance, and maybe the one that he’ll be best remembered for years from now (with the aforementioned Bluth being Pilgrim’s only real competition).
In fact, a great deal of what’s said about Cera can be said about Winstead, who takes Ramona and keeps her from being completely unsympathetic. Scott and Ramona are two sides of the same coin– both are totally flawed and given the proper impetus truly strive to better themselves and move past their more selfish traits and behaviors. Ramona’s secrecy and aloofness threaten to make her hard to like but Winstead finds the vulnerability in her character and keeps that close to the walls Ramona builds to protect herself. After all, if you had seven Evil Exes– really Evil– wouldn’t you keep your guard up at all times?
Cera and Winstead are surrounded by an absolutely stand-out cast so large and so uniformly great that giving proper shout-outs to all of them would take an entire article on its own. Culkin, I’ll wager, will turn out to be a favorite of everyone who sees Scott Pilgrim thanks to his ability to literally slide into frame with casual ease and pilfer the spotlight from his costars with a single line, and Kendrick continues her trend of picking out choice roles and making the most of them however large or small . Wong’s turn as Knives Chau– Scott’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film– should be given a great deal of attention for the bubbly energy she brings to her performance, and she may get more out of her role her than anyone else just for how engaging and charming she is. And then there’s everyone else in between, none of whom should be considered any less than their fellow cast members. Even the smaller characters are important to the whole– Alison Pil’s Kim Pine (drummer for Sex Bob-omb) and Johnny Simmons’ “Young” Neil (Sex Bob-omb groupie and band member hopeful), for example, add a lot with really minor and reigned in performances. And there are so many others– Routh’s telekinetic vegan evil ex, Chris Evans’ spot-on satire of action hero tropes, Mark Webber’s frantic and hapless frontman and songwriter. It just goes on.
And that’s why Scott Pilgrim is the kind of film you’ll watch and re-watch over and over again– it’s all about the detail. One part musical, one part action movie, one part romance, one part cinema-aping-video-games, there’s so much going on in Scott Pilgrim that even if you catch onto four of the components that go into one specific scene, you’ve almost certainly missed twice as many more. Edgar Wright, surely one of our finest directors, and his cast should all be proud of this excellent piece of hyperactive cinematic stylization.