Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Magical realism meets 'Mortal Kombat,' as magical combat and mortal realism fire up a sweet, funny and blindingly original first-love tale.

Wry, whimsical and action-packed are not three adjectives you usually find together. But with his zingy indie comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, director and co-writer Edgar Wright has pulled off a trifecta of Mixmaster delightfulness, following his zombie tragicomedy Shaun of the Dead and his Wicker Man-like buddy-cop-movie homage Hot Fuzz. Blending his tilted sensibility with that of Canadian writer-artist Bryan Lee O'Malley's manga-inflected, six-volume "Scott Pilgrim" digests proves a much savvier and astute choice than having, say, the science-fiction, high-adventure Fantastic Four movies be directed by the Barbershop guy.

Like Ghost World and American Splendor, Scott Pilgrim adapts a comics series not about superheroes but about prosaic slackers (for what is American Splendor's Harvey Pekar if not the original slacker?). But after starting down that road, Wright veers off into “Scrubs”-like flights of fancy—albeit if “Scrubs” took place inside an old-fashioned video arcade game. Summoning up the spirit of Midway's Mortal Kombat ironically much better than did the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, Wright and company create a genuinely sweet, twenty-something love story in which the magical realism of an Amélie or Big Fish isn't lyrical or poetic so much as it is KICK-ASS!

In a series of set-pieces—all of this photographed by the cinematographer of the Matrix trilogy, by the way—our hapless hero, unprepossessing in the extreme, finds himself flying through the air like an anime character, getting slammed through a brick wall like one of The Three Stooges, and being punted hundreds of feet into the air like in a Warner Bros. cartoon, and rather than seeming silly, it all plays with perfect sense within the fantasy framework constructed here. Remember that moment in (500) Days of Summer where the protagonist, newly in love, imagines himself tripping down a street of flowers, balloons and a chorus line of happy fellow strollers? This whole movie is like that. But with lots of fighting.

Also, lots of pop-up captions with people's ages and other information; self-conscious swirls of Valentine hearts when two lovers kiss; onomatopoeia sound effects; and the vegetarian equivalent of "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

One key to making this work is the relative simplicity of the plot itself. Toronto 22-year-old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) plays bass in a scruffy band called Sex Bob-Omb alongside Kim Pine (Alison Pill), Stephen Stills—no, not that Stephen Stills—(Mark Webber) and Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). He has a chaste yet still vaguely inappropriate relationship with 17-year-old schoolgirl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and an equally chaste relationship with his gay best friend and roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin, with comic timing to kill for).

Things get complicated when Scott falls head-over-heels—in this case, not literally—for soulful, dry-witted neo-punk Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Things then get ridiculously complicated when, in order to win her, Scott must defeat the League of Evil Exes, a cadre of Ramona's six ex-boyfriends and one girlfriend, put together by the nefarious Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

The other key to making this work is emotional truthfulness, and the film has that a'plenty. Wild and wacky, farcical and funny, Scott Pilgrim nonetheless nails that magical rush of sweetheart-candy endorphins when you see The One and you know—as much as any twenty-something knows—that it's time for your life to begin. And not in an Edward-and-Bella way—emotional truthfulness, remember? Other generations' lovers talked of swimming the ocean, climbing mountains, lassoing the moon. How much different is it to fight seven evil exes with leaping spin-kicks, videogame treasure and magic beasts sprung from guitar chords?