Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the first movie I’ve ever seen that is truly by geeks, for geeks. That might seem a ridiculous statement in a world where Joss Whedon is directing the Avengers movie, J.J. Abrams helms Star Trek reboots and Peter Jackson whiles away his time making little movies about hobbits and elves, but on some level, these people are filmmakers before they are geeks, and even in the most fanservice-laden superhero movie around, there are still hints that these movies are made for something more than just the comic book collector or fan of the source material. Scott Pilgrim, in contrast, rejects the elusive mainstream appeal in favor of exulting in its geeky roots. Imagine getting all the YouTube stars, all the CollegeHumor writers, every self-proclaimed forum megastar in a room and telling them to make a movie.

The result is an enthusastic and starry-eyed love letter to video games, comic books and anime and the tropes therein, all wrapped around a surprisingly heartfelt tale of relationships, self-confidence, and growing up.

“Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it.”

The movie follows the trials and tribulations of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), an unemployed 22 year old loser in Toronto who spends his time crashing at his friend Wallace’s pad, playing in a band called the Sex-Bob-Omb and dating a high school girl named Knives. His life suddenly gets turned upside down when he meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams… literally. After a rocky start, sparks begin to fly, and everything seems perfect… until Scott is suddenly attacked by a fireball flinging ex-boyfriend of Ramona’s. It turns out that, if he wants to date her, he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in combat. Between that, performing in the Battle of the Bands and fending off an increasingly obsessive Knives, what’s a poor geek to do?

Scott Pilgrim is based on a series of graphic novels, but you don’t need to read them to understand the plot at all; I came in with no background and no expectations other than an orgy of geek in-jokes. I got all that and more.

A Pair of Starman-Crossed Lovers

Obviously, the cultural references are thick on the ground, using everything from the music of Legend of Zelda to a Seinfeld sequence of all things. What really struck me and warmed my geeky heart, though, is how it embraced the lavishly ludicrous elements of video game, anime and comic book logic. Most movies based on comics or games bend over backward to either ignore game mechanics and comic aesthetics or adapt them to be more “realistic” within the world of the movie. Not Scott Pilgrim. Enemies explode in showers of coins with floating scores above their heads. Characters pose dramatically in front of freeze-framed anime backgrounds. Giant phantasmal dragons loom over combatants as they do musical battle. It’s all just in a day’s work for these characters.  And it’s not just a stylistic device, but part of the plot; the climax of the movie revolves around a particularly ingenious Chekhov’s Gun that will get hardcore gamers cheering.

Of course, a movie can have all the clever tricks and amusing references in the world and won’t work without a good cast, and for the most part, Scott Pilgrim delivers. In fact, I was surprised at how strong and likeable the supporting cast was. The evil exes are all entertaining and over-the-top in the best possible way, with special mention going to Chris Evans and Brandon Routh for their intensely amusing and entertaining sequences. Anna Kendrick is perfect as Scott’s sister, a flighty and gossiping Tim Hortons’ employee, and Scott’s bandmates are an alternately quirky, bitter and ambitious lot that serve as a great foil for Scott’s romantic fumblings. But by far, the two that steal the show are Knives and Wallace. As Scott’s gay roommate, Kieran Culkin (yes, brother of the other Culkin) infuses Wallace with sarcastic charm and an almost supernatural level of competence that sets him well apart from his confused roommate. His skills with cellphones must indeed be seen to be believed. Every scene he is in becomes ten times funnier just by virtue of his presence. And then… oh Knives, sweet adorable teenage Knives… Ellen Wong somehow manages to capture everything that is lovable about the screaming fangirl, boiling the essence of teenage silliness and melodrama into its most huggable, squishy form ever. Her grand and sweeping sense of love and revenge is completely over the top, but it’s supposed to be… she’s a teenager! The scenes where she pines over Scott are hilarious, and yet there is a genuine note of pain and sympathy there as we see how much his behavior hurts her.

Indeed, the movie’s willingness to address the more painful elements of relationships – and the failures therein – are what elevate it above what is, in the end, another simple comedy about a loser guy winning the girl of his dreams. Exes, evil and otherwise, are the center of the tale, and it takes a pretty unflinching look at how people hurt their boyfriends and girlfriends both in and out of the relationship. Ramona’s exes may be evil, mustache-twirling types, but the movie makes no bones about the fact that Ramona herself is not about to win Girlfriend of the Year any time soon. This works as a counterpoint to Scott’s own reprehensible behaviour to his own exes: his clumsy dismissal of Knives, his total obliviousness to bandmate Kim’s bitterness, his vilification of his own “evil ex” Envy.  In the course of the movie, the characters begin to recognize and admit to their own failings, and in some cases begin to understand that life is less about the people you date and more about the person you are.

All this, and it’s unrepentantly Canadian too, with lots of emphasis placed on the Toronto setting, the slight culture shock between American Ramona and the Canadian world of Scott and friends… oh, and Tim Hortons, of course. After seeing Vancouver forced to double as New York, Chicago, L.A. and every American city to date, it’s kind of fun to see a movie that digs in its heels and says, “No, we’re in Canada now, eh?”

Scott Pilgrim got: Self-Respect!

The movie has its share of problems. For one, I personally found the two lead actors to be… lacking. Particularly Michael Cera, who delivers his lines in a sort of dull confused monotone for most of the time. While it does work for the character, it’s still hard for me to overcome my general distaste for his acting. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does slightly better as Ramona, but her dry and closed-off delivery make it hard to connect with her character. Again, this is probably intentional – Ramona is more of an ideal than a character in her own right – but it makes it harder to care for her since we don’t really know her that well.

Also, the movie tries a little too hard at times. It so wants to be more than just a geek movie about a guy and a girl that sometimes it just gets a bit caught up in itself. There are scenes which feel more like the director saying, “I HAS MADE AN ARTSY MOVIEZ” than just getting on with the jokes and plot. It’s unlikely to win over non-geeks either, as half the content will end up sailing over their head anyway.

But really, for all its failings, this is a movie every geek must see. Between the anime aesthetics, video game references and comic-style mayhem, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will keep you laughing and maybe leave you thinking.  Your non-geek friends and family may see it, screw up their nose, and say, “What did I just watch?” But don’t worry. You’ll know, and that’s what matters.

Tell us what you thought about Scott Pilgrim!

How do you think it holds up as a cult geek classic, or just a movie in general? And how well does it reflect the graphic novels?

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