By Roxana Hadadi
At some point in his career, Michael Cera should stop playing the same role over and over again – you know, the soft-spoken, semi-elitist do-gooder who eventually has to veer into bad-boy-land to win over the girl he’s helplessly, inexplicably in love with (see: “Superbad,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “Youth in Revolt”).
But with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Cera proves exactly why he’s so perfect at the role – and his performance, coupled with the film’s super-rapid pace and recognition of itself as a pop culture creation, give the film a certain punchy pizzazz that should make it perfect for audiences looking for a very weird (albeit very sweet) teen romance.
The film, which is based on a series of same-named graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley that have been released between 2004 and July, begins by introducing us to Scott Pilgrim (Cera), a 22-year-old living in Toronto who is dating a 17-year-old high school student, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). While his friends Stephen (Mark Webber) and Kim (Alison Pill), also his bandmates in the punk trio Sex Bob-Omb, and roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), mock his relationship with Knives – whom he often plays video games with and has never kissed – Scott is convinced it’s the real thing.
No one else is, though, especially not his sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), who points out that Scott has done this for nearly a year: Date one girl after another in an attempt to forget his ex Natalie (Brie Larson), who ditched him and now goes by “Envy” as frontwoman of popular band The Clash at Demonhead, a hometown band that made it big. It doesn’t help that Knives, who often listens to music Scott recommends, dissents from him when it comes to The Clash at Demonhead – she loves them and idolizes Envy, obsessively reading her blog and knowing nothing about her past with Scott.
But after Scott has a trippy dream about a purple-haired roller-skating girl whom he later sees at a library, finds out is real and learns is named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he couldn’t care less about Knives. Instead, he’s convinced he’s in love with Ramona, and once he awkwardly hits on her at a mutual friend’s party, the two embark on a shaky romance. The morning after a failed one-night stand, though, Scott refuses to let Ramona slip away, inviting her to Sex Bob-Omb concert that night where the band will compete against other local acts for a chance at a record deal.
It’s at that show – where Ramona and Knives painfully interact because he hasn’t broken up with the latter yet – where the “vs. the World” part of the film’s title comes in, as Scott realizes Ramona isn’t just your average Technicolor-haired girl with a penchant for black clothes and combat boots. Instead, she’s the focus of the League of Evil Exes, seven stellar fighters consisting of six talented men and one woman who also fell in love with Ramona and would do anything to get her back – or at least beat up anyone who tries to date her instead of them. In the middle of the concert, Scott is challenged to fight first ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), sparking the beginning of the film’s major conflict and further dramatizing Scott’s quest to win over Ramona for good.
What makes the film so enjoyable isn’t just director Edgar Wright’s accurate adaptation of O’Malley’s graphic novels, but also the fact that “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” knows it’s a movie, and milks everything out of that self-realization. By keeping the animated elements from the graphic novels – such as shaking sketched lines to signify sound while the bands play – and swiping other elements from video games and television sitcoms, the film stays fresh while moving at a brisk pace. Whenever any scene gets too comfortable, Wright switches it up, such as adding a laugh track to interaction between Scott and Wallace or providing more backstory to explain his character’s motives, such as flashbacks to Ramona’s past relationships that are displayed as comic book panels.
And because the film is so aware that it’s a film, it allows for the plot developments that made sense in the graphic novels to make sense onscreen, too, such as when Scott survives being thrown several flights into the air by a vengeful ex, other bands are incinerated and villains explode into heaps of video game coins. There’s no discussion by the characters about the weird stuff that’s happening around them, which keeps the film as a solid fantasy – and one that works that reality-bending quality to its best advantage.
It helps, too, that Cera once again nails the role of a somewhat lonely young man who finds his life’s purpose in a distant-but-lovely girl, and other actors – like Culkin, Winstead and ultimate baddie Jason Schwartzman – help give the film a sense of welcome whiplash. In fact, if anyone steals the show it’s Culkin, who as the gay Wallace provides welcome comic relief as Scott’s heckling and unfazed roommate who constantly gossips with Stacey while simultaneously stealing her boyfriends.
For parents, though, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” has plenty to be skeptical about, especially for younger teens who may be interested in the flick. Though most of the violence is goofy and stylized, the fight scenes are still intense, numerous characters die, there are a few implied sex scenes with near-naked make-out sessions, couples in bed together, same-sex relationships, talk of abusive relationships and the idea of male ownership over a female. Of course, it’s not all seriously handled and ideas are sometimes toyed with and then totally abandoned due to the film’s fast-moving nature, but most of the film’s elements may not be suitable for anyone under 13, as its PG-13 rating suggests.
But overall, the film’s dazzling visuals and solid turns from Cera and Culkin help make “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” yet another of this year’s successful comic book adaptations. Eventually, Cera will have to grow up – but with “Scott Pilgrim,” he’s doing just fine.
Roxana Hadadi last reviewed “The Other Guys.”
Looking to rent a movie instead? “Date Night” is out this week on DVD–read our review.