When I was around 12 or thirteen I assembled a nice little comic book collection with a pretty good collection of Spider-Man comics and a handful of the more famous graphic novels (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, 300 etc.), but my time as an avid comic aficionado eventually did come to an end. This wasn’t because my interest in the material really waned, but eventually I realized I didn’t really have the money to keep buying comics while simultaneously keeping up with my movie passions, all on a twelve year old’s meager income. I still read the occasional trade paperback and feel like a member of the comic book fan community, but my knowledge of comics written since the turn of the millennium is not as great as my knowledge of older properties. As such, the Scott Pilgrim property (which wasn’t released until 2004) was unknown to me until there was talk of a film adaptation. That makes this a bit of a different experience for me than a lot of the comic adaptations that have been coming around recently, and the trailer just made it look like some kind of weird cross between Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Kick-Ass. If that sounds like an odd mix to you, you’re right; Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is kind of a mess.
The film is said to be set in modern Toronto, but really, the film is set in its own surreal world. The titular protagonist (played by the typically awkward Michael Cera) is a twenty two year old slacker-ish guy who plays bass in an incredibly mediocre indie band called Sex Bob-omb (that’s a Super Mario reference). It’s been a year since Pilgrim went through a breakup with Natalie “Envy” Adams (Brie Larson), the lead singer of a band called “The Clash at Demonhead,” which has since singed to a major label and gone on to great success. Pilgrim has been depressed ever since and the latest manifestation of this depression has been his decision to begin dating a seventeen year old high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), the relationship is strictly non-sexual, but still kind of creepy. Chau is crazy about him but he’s pretty quick to forget about her after he sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams. After a little trying Pilgrim realizes he might have a shot with Flowers but before he can seal the deal, and this is when things get really weird, he needs to literally defeat her “seven evil exes.” These exes are all bitter about the way their relationship with Flowers ended and plan to take out their frustrations on Pilgrim, who must literally fight them off using kung fu skills he inexplicably gets whenever these super powered exes show up.
The central conceit of having to literally fight the ex-lovers of one’s significant other is of course, meant to be a metaphor for the way that one is always “competing” with their lover’s previous mates. That’s kind of an interesting idea, but one that I ultimately find kind of shallow. Rather than actually improving himself in order to prove himself worthy of this relationship he simply seems to find power out of nowhere and then beat the crap out of these exes. Occasionally these fights do seem to reflect something in the actual relationship, like in the case of the second evil exe played by Chris Evans, who pilgrim defeats by exploiting the ex’s foolhardiness, but all to often Pilgrim’s victories seem like unearned dues ex machinas, like his first battle which he wins through sheer brute force or another fight later which he seems to win just by playing music really loud… or something. Regardless of how well the metaphor holds up, these fight scenes do get old fast. I had had my fill of them somewhere around the third one, only to realize that there were still going to be four more of the damn things.
I’ve only really scratched the surface of how surreal this movie can be for a Hollywood film with all this discussion of fighting evil exes. There are gratuitous visual tics used in almost every scene of this film for one reason or another. Early film this kind of stuff is established by things like sound effects showing up onscreen via, for instance a phone will ring and the words “ring ring” will pop up on screen in a comic book-like font. Stuff like that happens all the time in this movie, punches are accentuated by “pow” bubbles (think Adam West’s “batman” but with more irony), foul mouthed baristas are visibly bleeped, and bandmembers who’s voices are drowned out by noise will be subtitled. The fights with the evil exes can at least be interpreted as metaphors, but all this other garbage are just pointless distracting gags. It’s like the whole movie is the main character’s elaborate daydream, he never snaps into reality.
Perhaps the most pervasive of these visual flourishes is the film’s fixation on video games. The whole film is loaded with video game aesthetics: coins are dropped and collected, the fights with the exes are narrated by a voice not unlike the commentator voice in the “Street Fighter” franchise (compete with “KO” being shouted at the end of the fights), and Pilgrim even collects a “1Up” that gets used in as a dues ex machine late in the film. This seems like an incredibly strange choice of motif because, frankly, romantic relationships are the last thing that video games have any business trying to represent (and I say that as an avid gamer). Look, I’m not Roger Ebert; I think that games are certainly an art form on a visual level and that there are legitimately fascinating things that games can do with narrative, but romance sure as hell isn’t one of them.
In games players are given everything that they need in order to succeed from the very beginning; any foe can be defeated with the moves available to you, every boss has a weak spot that can be exploited, and if you fail you can always try again. All that’s fine in a game, which is always supposed to give you a fair shot, but that’s not how life works and it sure as hell isn’t the way relationships work. Relationships are messy and they can’t always be overcome by methodically defeating a series of bosses. More often than not you aren’t going to be given the metaphorical kung fu skills you need in a situation simply by virtue of having fed the machine the necessary quarter for a credit. That’s what bugs me about the whole metaphor, and in general the way problems are solved in this movie, Pilgrim never really earns any of his accomplishment, he just seems to be given what he needs from the start as some sort of privilege of being the main character.
Director Edgar Wright has of course made a career out of these sort of pop culture reference gags in his previous collaborations with the like-minded comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as well as the BBC series “Spaced.” I liked all of those projects to some extent, though perhaps not as much as some have. The video game motif and other throw away gags like that probably would have been right home in those films, but the main difference is that the gags in those movies were really funny, and they aren’t funny here. I giggled a few times while watching this movie, but mostly at the awkward character moments and not at the pop culture gags. The audience I saw it with wasn’t really laughing either and I’m not sure they were supposed to, this is a movie that seems to be aiming for clever rather than funny and while I’m not inherently opposed to such a goal, these gratuitous references really just feel self-indulgent without actual laughs to justify them.
I wasn’t completely immune to the charms of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. I was pretty fascinated by the progression of evil exes, each with their own unique quirks and many of them being played by interesting actors making neat cameos. I also thought the young cast was pretty good, even Michael Cera, who may not have much of a range but who is certainly good at what he does. Also, while I don’t personally relate to the hipster sub-culture that the film inhabits, I recognize that the movie is probably a pretty good representation of that world and will probably appeal to the people within it. The movie will probably hold up pretty well as an artifact of turn of the century youth culture in much the same way that something like, Reality Bites was able to take a snapshot of its time and place even without being a particularly memorable film in and of itself.
There were a lot of individual scenes in this movie that I did quite enjoy and there seems to be some sort of genuine message about relationships buried somewhere under all the pointless pop culture gags and video game references. Unfortunately the film just gets really repetitive and at times kind of grating when all these moments get put together into a full movie. There seems to be an enjoyable movie that could have been made here with a little more discipline on Wright’s part, but as it stands this is a near miss that can at least claim to be a lot more interesting than a number of Hollywood’s more banal failures.
**1/2 out of Four