Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best executions of a sustained central gimmick that I’ve ever seen. That the gimmick ultimately grows tiresome after nearly two hours is beside the point — on paper an unholy mix of Gondry-style preciousness and Luhrmann level stylistic aggressiveness, it should by rights have become intolerable after 10 minutes. I came in ready for an emo quirkiest, and waited for annoyance that never came. Scott Pilgrim is a triumph of modulation: visual, tonal and emotional. It barely hits a wrong note.
Based on a comic by Brian Lee O’Malley, the film builds a heavily stylized, outlandish universe for its characters: think Moulin Rouge!‘s cardboard cutout version of Paris, except younger, hipper, and informed by classic arcade games. It’s a world where a punch in the kisser will result in no injury, but instead a giant comic book-style “POW!!” or maybe a “THWOP!” Where the characters can suddenly break into a deliberately half-baked Seinfeld parody without batting an eye. And where the 22 year-old title character, a music nerd who plays bass in a punk band, can be told that to get the girl of his dreams, he must defeat (not just battle) her seven evil exes (not ex-boyfriends), and take it in stride, like a fact of life. Seven evil exes — what rotten luck.
Overflowing with sight gags, pop culture allusions, and delirious wordplay (the “l-word” joke, tragically spoiled by the trailers, is worth the ticket price on its own), the movie will do anything for a laugh. At the same time, it never seems desperate or overexerted. Director Edgar Wright, whose collaborations with Simon Pegg have resulted in two of the best-loved cult comedies of the modern era, refuses to let the whimsy and the fireworks overwhelm the fundamentals. Scott Pilgrim‘s quirks and flights of fancy are very funny, but they’re also purposeful: even the craziest digressions, like the extended Seinfeld riff and video game-inspired set pieces, do their part to advance the ball, narratively and thematically. There is no sense of flailing around.
Michael Cera is a hit here — even more than usual — for similar reasons. Scott Pilgrim is mostly identical to Cera’s stock characters: tentative, shy, with a verbal facility hampered, to hilarious effect, by his tendency to construct sentences on the fly, as if trying on words for size. For some time I’ve been growing weary of this schtick, a fact that I did not recall once during Scott Pilgrim. That’s because the movie is not about the schtick; the schtick is not the focus, and the character — whom the movie clearly adores — is not himself the joke. Scott Pilgrim does not even have the fish-out-of-water quality on which Cera usually thrives — instead he’s harried, hassled, perpetually put-upon, which feels exactly right. The character and the actor disappear into the world of the film.
Cera and Wright get key assists from an ace supporting cast, including the perennially underrated Kieran Culkin, who nearly runs off with the film as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (with whom Scott shares a bed — it’s a small apartment. Also invaluable: Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the self-assured, neon-haired love interest; Alison Pill as the uber-sarcastic drummer in Scott’s band, the Sex Bomb-ombs, and Jascon Schwarzman as the hilariously smarmy (Schwarzman’s specialty) leader of the Seven Evil Exes. No one here is much over 30 — that’s part of the solipsistic dream universe the film creates — and what we get instead is a who’s who of smart young character actors.
The multiple jokey martial arts climaxes ended up testing my patience — but by then I was so impressed that it hardly mattered. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a marvel of technical and screenwriting precision, an off-kilter comic delight, and an eloquent, non-pushy tribute to the importance of confidence and self-respect, in relationships and elsewhere. In a summer full of glossy franchise product, it’s a weird, original, fully realized vision.