Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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By Armond White

Midway through grinning at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I realized: This elation must be what Tarantino fans want to feel when watching one of his pop culture marathons. The difference is that Tarantino’s pop-referencing movies extract all social and political contexts, while Edgar Wright, who directed Scott Pilgrim and co-wrote its screenplay (based on graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley), is also a social satirist.

Michael Cera: the dweeb who would be king.

The humor in Scott Pilgrim feels so good because it is about something: The romantic pangs of adolescence as understood by Scott (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old who plays in a Toronto rec-room rock band and is beginning to discover that his desire for affection gives him inward and outward obligations—to the needs of others and to his own slowly-maturing self-respect. Sorry to put it so plainly, but Wright puts it exuberantly, in the vibrant tones and hyperbolic style of both comic books and video games.

When Scott, on the rebound, dates inexperienced high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), then falls for a vastly experienced cobalt-, magenta-, then green-haired American chick, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the situations recall Margaret Yang in Rushmore and the rock nerds in High Fidelity—but without settling for the pop references as Tarantino would. Wright connects to real-life experience through the common lingo of movies (exaggerated romance and violence), music (hit songs plus grooves and riffs) and gaming culture (visible onomatopoeia and energy effects). Freely switching between pop idioms, Wright creates the effect once ascribed to Spielberg’s 1941 as “having your head stuck inside a pinball machine.” But Scott Pilgrim takes advantage of video games’ recently advanced technology, whereby the digital simulacra of actual experience becomes part of Wright’s joking commentary.

This might make Scott Pilgrim too intense for casual filmgoers who can’t catch its amped-up pace and onrushing sarcasm. Scott Pilgrim’s excellence lies in its honest confrontation with the truth of fanboy immaturity—the subject QT won’t touch even though that’s where his imagination is stuck. QT’s films always lead to ceremonial exploitation-movie brutality, but Scott Pilgrim is constructed as a series of ethical challenges: Scott must confront Ramona’s past lovers (“Seven Evil Exes”), submitting his immature love-life to Herculean physical and moral tests.

Modeled after the classic, amateur-rock battle-of-the-bands, these contests are rites-of-passage, recognizable to all for their outsized representation of the jealousy, insecurity and anger that romance and sex can inspire. Because Wright is a visually gifted, kinetic filmmaker—unlike Tarantino—every clever gimmick is emotionally expressive, including the video-game-style logo and credits theme and the moment of Scott and Knives’ break-up. The proverbial decree, “It’s not gonna work out,” becomes a black void that envelops the heartsick youth. Wright makes visual correlatives of awkward feelings and hyperactive cultural experience. Not emotionally alienated like Tarantino, Wright at his best shows some of the exuberance and elation of Stephen Chow’s great Kung Fu Hustle—where social anxiety was turned into pop mythology with the swiftness and lavishness of a movie musical. Wright even brings this exultant vision to the quick-changes of Scott’s gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), whose carefree, yet duplicitous, sex life makes a contrasting male adolescence sub-plot.

Child-man Michael Cera helps Wright achieve his clear behavioral focus. Cera’s child-like mouth and soft chin that—to borrow an infamous John Simon quote—“slips irretrievably into his neck” gives him a believable dweeb identity, whereas a more outwardly masculine lead might seem vain and narcissistic. I couldn’t relate to Cera’s previous screen zygotes, but Wright’s ingenuity consistently overcomes the smugness of Juno and the Judd Apatow material that I associate with Cera. This modern Sterling Holloway’s acting skill can now be newly appreciated up against the dynamic Seven Evil Exes. Chris Evans stands out as movie star Lucas Lee, doing an Eastwood vocal impersonation with a Wolverine haircut and chinstrap beard. Brandon Routh plays Todd Ingram, a brawny rock star with glowing super-villain eyes. Routh’s recent Superman performance adds to Wright’s hunk satire (a subliminal theme), which is magnified when Scott combats the Japanese-chic Katayanagi twins and, displaying his videogame prowess, unleashes his id—straight out of the 1955 Forbidden Planet. Top that, QT.

Wright knows how to use pop culture to better understand life. Scott Pilgrim is as full of pop references as Kill Bill but rendered by a wit, not a smart-ass sadist. Most critics misjudged Wright’s 2006 Hot Fuzz as simply a cop movie parody; they completely ignored the sting in Wright’s spoofing how the English class system is repeated in its law enforcement bureaucracy and his bemused critique of its threatening arcane social traditions.

In Scott Pilgrim, Wright brings a big-budget spotlight to the themes of pop culture’s identification/alienation—just as in Todd Graff’s little-seen Bandslam. Scott Pilgrim doesn’t quite have Bandslam’s depth to carry its audience to a new appreciation of human experience and pop paradox. Wright’s lesbian and Bollywood jokes come close but go too quickly, like gags on TV’s Corin Nemec or Scrubs. Still, it’s rare when a mainstream movie scrutinizes the seductions of mainstream pop. Wright’s speed and humor are authentic and irresistible. Let’s hope that’s not all his admirers see.
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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Directed by Edgar Wright
Runtime: 112 min.

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