Edgar Wright is a man at home in pop culture. Despite a winking self-awareness of the tropes that drive their genres, his first two feature films (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) evidence an appreciation and understanding of their forms that goes far beyond snide post-modern irony. As a result, both pull off the remarkable feat of succeeding at once as comedy and as tremendous genre entertainment. Certainly Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Wright’s gifted collaborators on Shaun and Hot Fuzz, share some credit for that success, but the balancing act between satirical pastiche and homage is a tricky one that only a truly gifted director can pull off. And if there were still any doubts as to Wright’s ability to succeed without Pegg and Frost, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World should put them to rest.
Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult-favorite graphic novel (which — full disclosure — I haven’t so much as touched a volume of), Scott Pilgrim follows the titular hero (Michael Cera), a 23-year-old Toronto hipster, as he pursues the seeming girl-of-his-dreams Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Scott has to overcome bitterness and insecurity resulting from an earlier devastating break-up, as well as a selfish, unserious rebound relationship with 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). The real sticking point, though, is that in order to be with Ramona, he must fight and defeat her “seven evil exes,” returned from her past to control her romantic future.
Like Wright’s previous films, Scott Pilgrim is set in a fantasy world shaped by its characters’ obsessions. Scott is a member of a rock band named Sex Bob-omb — a Super Mario reference — and he and the other members of the band (played by Mark Webber and Allison Pill) spend a lot of their time on the couch, controllers in hand. It’s perhaps the first movie that could be described as having a video game aesthetic without it being meant as an insult. Wright is in love with the possibilities provided by the form, and his film is gleefully, thrillingly alive with the plastic potential of cinema. Split-screens, shifting aspect ratios, and beautifully executed CGI effects abound, not as self-satisfied spectacle but as a joyous exploration of film form. From start to finish, Scott Pilgrim is, more than anything else, just a complete blast.
It helps that the cast is spectacular and very, very game. Comic performances are sharp across the board, with both reliably terrific actors (Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, and especially Kieran Culkin as Scott’s caustic roommate) and a few surprises (Chris Evans, Brandon Routh). Winstead is a marvel in a necessarily underdeveloped role, and Cera continues to mine slight but rewarding variations on the same basic type. Here, his tentative, halting speech patterns signal the navel-gazing solipsism of a self-absorbed jerk. Wright’s style evokes his worldview, expressive of his emotions—volatile and exciting, but frequently at the expense of others’ feelings—while remaining critical of them. Scott Pilgrim may be the hero, but he’s also frequently kind of an asshole.
The ending is a disappointment, then, in that it forgives the character a bit too cleanly and gives him what he wants a bit too easily. But it’s really only a letdown because of how thrilling and, yes, emotionally complex what precedes it is. Some critics have taken Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to task for using its stylistic pleasures to mask how emotionally empty it is, missing that its emotion is its style. Posing its characters’ emotions as video game expressions, the film locates a spot-on metaphor for how Scott’s mediated, culture-soaked generation views itself and its relationships. For better or worse, it gets us. And if it lets us off the hook a little too easily, well, this is still Scott’s story, and Scott has to write himself a happy ending.