Last weekend, Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables was number one in the US box office, not least because of its appeal to draw audience nostalgia from its band of beefy action stars from explosive 1980s action films. Meanwhile, a modestly advertised movie called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World also opened the same weekend and was a box office disappointment. In a fairer universe, Scott Pilgrim would have blown The Expendables right out of this world with its far greater achievement in delivering pure fun.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the latest film by British director Edgar Wright, who may now corner the market in turning fading genres into funny satirical comedy. His last two movies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, brought out like a spring fountain the hilarity lurking under the preposterousness of the zombie and the bombastic Hollywood buddy cop action genres, respectively, while still paying affectionate homage to their roots. While Scott Pilgrim is not quite up there with those two comedies, his turn to old school video games proves his sharp eye for loving, visual satire.
This is the movie you wish all the past video game adaptations had been, only that this is adapted from the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley (and video games have yet to serve as rich enough source material for a movie). From the opening Universal logo theme played with that old organ synthesizer from Nintendo games, the movie grafts all the familiar video game tricks into a wild, clever visual comedy. Its only drawback is that the movie, towards the end, gets a little too carried away with its visual tricks.
Michael Cera, who has never seemed more comfortable in a role before, stars as Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old slacker dweeb living in Toronto, Canada. He leads a garage rock band of even dweebier slackers including his ex-girlfriend, Kim Pine (the wonderfully droll Alison Pill), Stephen Stills (Mark Weber), and Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). Just like a video game, the movie introduces each of its characters with a black box on the screen containing the name, the character’s age, and a distinguishing trait. Scott actually starts out as a bit of a jerk, as he is casually dating a 17-year-old girl, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), merely to stop himself from being lonely from his break-up with his last girlfriend, Julie (Brie Larson), much to the chagrin of his sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick). There is also his gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), who draws some big laughs in his unusual forwardness with some guys he is introduced to.
Then, enter the American girl of Scott’s dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is kind of like a younger, more deadpan version of the Kate Winslet character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In a hilariously lousy pickup attempt, he tries to get a rise out of her by explaining Pacman was supposed to have the “a” replaced with a “u” but was not because it would sound too close to the swear word. After he finds that she works as a package deliverer for online shopping, he orders a package to see her again and, as seen in the trailer, she finally says yes to going out on a date with him just to get a signature for his package.
As the high concept premise goes, he then finds that he has to battle Ramona’s evil exes in true video game style before he can be together with her. The battle with the first ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), sets the tone for the movie where it seamlessly combines fanciful visual and sound effects of pows, bangs, booms, and crashes with surprisingly impressively choreographed martial arts. The ante is then raised with every successive ex, including actor Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), punk rocker Roxy (Mae Whitman), the Katayanagi twins, Kyle and Ken (Keita Saitou and Shota Saito), and record producer Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzmann).
Fans of video games will surely have a field day with the endless visual homages in the movie, as they not only reference the martial arts fights influenced by games like Street Fighter and Tekken but a slew of other games like Battle of the Bands and Guitar Hero. In the tinier details, there are also twists on old school Mario such as a 1 UP life or every defeated opponent in a battle disappearing into a shower of gold coins. My favorite battle of all is the one with Brandon Routh’s Todd Ingram who humorously uses his green “vegan” power to control and debilitate Scott (you will have to see the movie to find out how) like Superman weakens Lex Luthor (an ironic wink in that Routh had played Superman before). I also liked how the movie borrows a staple from Jet Li movies where the man has to fight a woman when he cannot hit her. This one, instead of the fighter carrying another woman to land the hits, uses the reverse tactic of having Ramona move Scott’s arms and legs in the fight.
Even with the nonstop barrage of creative sight gags, Wright solidly integrates them with the growth of the characters and the sweet romantic chemistry between Cera and Winstead (and Scott’s personal realizations get neat twists in flaming swords he gets in his chest). If there is a way he can improve as a director, it is to learn a tighter sense of economy on his innovation and when to end his movie. Yes, Hot Fuzz also went a little long in the third act but that was more justfied within the parody of the overblown action films that also tend to go on too long. This movie, which sells itself with the tagline “an epic of epicness,” does become too much of muchness towards its climax, as it passes through at least two potential endpoints in the story.
Nevertheless, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World further cements Wright as one of the freshest comedic voices out there who can display a firm grasp of hilarity and tone even with a bigger Hollywood studio budget. And here, I was about to write that Wright should skewer overblown action movies like The Expendables. But, of course, he has actually done that already with Hot Fuzz. Maybe then his next movie can be a parody of the brain-rottingly dizzying Michael Bay summer movies to try to prevent those from making any more money and make the world a fairer place. And hopefully, the studios and movie stars will get in on the joke as well to make it a hit.
Bottom line: Well worth seeing.