Edgar Wright is a rare type of filmmaker. Having made only four feature films, with an average budget of $24.5 million (a middling number for Hollywood films), he has formed a completely recognisable style and has stuck true to his artistic sensibilities, even going as far as quitting his project of eight years, Ant Man, when studio interference got out of control. But, most importantly, Wright does all these things while never forgetting to have a bit of fun, and nowhere is his joy for filmmaking as evident as it is in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Based on the graphic novel series, the film tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a twenty-two year old slacker in between jobs, who plays bass for an adequate rock band and is sort of dating a high school girl, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) while still hurting over his ex-girlfriend-turned-rock-sensation Envy Adams (Brie Larson). Things take a sharp left turn, however, when he meets the literal girl of his dreams, a mysterious pink-haired courier named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Finally happy that he’s in a real relationship with a girl he loves, Ramona’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of seven evil exes (with Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman among them) who sequentially challenge Scott to a duel.
While auteurs like The Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson try to come up with characters that are completely quirky and unusual, Wright takes realisitic, recognisable people and stretches their strangest qualities to extremes, so even at their most weird you can still imagine running into these characters at a country pub or rock festival.
For instance, Scott Pilgrim, hilariously played by Michael Cera, is essentially the mostly-nice, socially awkward guy you encounter in teen comedies and the corner of birthday parties, but by stretching out his high-pitched intonations and wide eyed gaze, Wright and Cera have created a character that feels fresh but familiar nonetheless. Winstead’s Ramona got a similar treatment, so that instead of coming off as your average MPDG (Manic Pixie Dream Girl), Wright and Winstead actually draw us into the mystery of the character by emphasising the hidden darkness of MPDG’s that is so often used as a gimmick, but here actually feels authentic. In fact, all the performances are uniquely enjoyable, but the stand-outs for me were Alison Pill as the downbeat drummer of Scott’s band (no pun intended), Chris Evans as an egotistical action star, and Jason Schwartzman as the ultimate ex, who is somehow cool, nerdy, sweet and obnoxious, as only he can be.
One of the most frequently heard maxims by members of the last two generations has been “Life isn’t a video game”. Wright decided to negate this maxim with extreme prejudice. The hit scores, flashy colours, illustrated sound effects, even the 8-bit rendition of the Universal logo all contribute to a gleefully nostalgic arcade game aesthetic, not because the events take place in a video game (they take place in Toronto, and Wright is proud to have made one of the few major films shot in Canada that is actually set there), but because it is energetic, manic, colourful… and because he can. Some will undoubtedly find this self-conscious style too in-your-face, but I found it decidedly charming and witty.
Scott Pilgrim also works not only as a comedy and coming-of-age teenage film, but as an action film too. The action in this film is remarkable. Taking into account the video-game-style acrobatics and superpowers, the fight scenes are superbly executed. Each punch feels like it hurts, and, as far as I can tell, it looks as though the majority of the actors did their own stunts. You can actually see their faces in about ninety per cent of the shots in each fight! It helps that Wright enlisted cinematographer Bill Pope (the DP for such modern action greats as The Matrix and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2) to shoot the film, as Pope always ensures visual clarity in each action scene: we always know where the fighters are in relation to each other and close-ups are rarely used, allowing us to see all the work the actors are investing in their stunts.
I have to come clean: as much as I admire Edgar Wright and his work, this film is not without its flaws, mainly with the story. Unlike Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, which featured lots of interesting subplots but never got in the way of the main plot, Scott Pilgrim is a very subplot-focused film. While the majority of these subplots are interesting but brief, the subplot involving Scott’s ex-girlfirend Envy Adams is so well developed, interesting, and long, that it could have been the plot of another film. Also, this subplot ends before the film’s final act, giving it an almost anti-climatic feel; I was hoping a subplot this strong would tie into the climax, but this wasn’t the case. Said climax may also have outstayed its welcome by about five minutes.
However, story flaws accounted for, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Shot in Wright’s characteristically restless style and with all his trademark camera angles, whip pans and visual gags, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is at once a film experiment, a hilarious comedy, a strong action film, and a testament to the joy and energy capable in cinema as only Wright could make.
* * * *
P.S. For fans of Wright’s work, comedy films, and films in general, I highly recommend this channel.