The fact that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie at all is a feat unto itself. A simple plot summary is likely to elicit blank stares from anyone unfamiliar with the books:
Twentysomething slacker Scott Pilgrim doesn’t have much going for him other than his crappy garage band and his high schooler girlfriend when he meets (literally) the girl of his dreams: Ramona Flowers. He falls head over heels for her, but there are complications. He has to defeat a league of her seven evil ex-boyfriends.
Author Brian Lee O’Malley renders his book in dynamic cartoon visuals and uses symbols from video game culture for both humor and narrative effect, but it’s not something that easily translates into a mainstream big-budget movie flick. But strong source material goes a long way, and so despite its flaws, Scott Pilgrim succeeds.
Most of the time, Scott Pilgrim is hilarious, giddy fun. It’s funny, really funny. Quite a lot of the original dialogue (which was what made much of the book so enjoyable) has been maintained, and the video game CGI elements connect effortlessly with the rest of the picture. The visuals are beautiful and visceral, though at times they border on being too happy and colorful, undermining the more serious themes at play. The artistic directors would have benefited from a more varied palate.
Director Edgar Wright is an excellent choice for such a plot-heavy ADD epic. The signature quick cuts that characterized his work in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are reincorporated en force, and scenes change mid-dialogue without missing a beat. It’s a source of humor and also a way of reflecting Scott’s own confusion.
Michael Cera is surprisingly good as the titular protagonist. He holds the perfidious title as the prototypical indie hero with all the backlash that invites, and his “star power” could have easily engulfed Scott Pilgrim and turned him into a blank-faced dope. Instead he shows off more versatility than he has in anything since Arrested Development, and while his performance doesn’t soar, at least it doesn’t destroy the movie as it could have. More impressive is Kieran Culkin, who plays Scott’s gay roommate Wallace with a reserved, dry wit.
Part of the problem with Scott Pilgrim is that it starts off at a run and never slows down. If they had spent a little less time on cartoon fights we might care a little bit about whether or not whether Scott gets the girl in the end (or which girl it ends up being). The second half of the film is a relentless series of battles, and the emotional crux of the story isn’t addressed until the climax. The tension leading up to that point feels entirely unearned.
Like all film adaptations, the restrictions of the medium lead to compressions of plot. This is understandable and unavoidable, but unfortunately is done at the expense of character development. Side characters are reduced to nothing more than stereotypes with clever lines, and the evil exes are nothing but bosses to be defeated. The film could have (as the comic does) given the reader an idea of these character’s lives outside of their relationship to Scott, but they don’t. Worst of all, Ramona herself is reduced to a prize, a Princess Peach held captive by a hipster Bowser.
As a result, the nobility of Scott’s video game quest is never challenged, which borders on unforgivable. A major aspect of the book is Scott’s dickish behavior. He’s selfish and thoughtless, and his actions hurt a lot of people throughout his life. By contrast the film devotes little time to Scott’s internal struggle. There’s no examination of his integrity or his motivations. While the comic used the cultural currency of its audience for a compelling examination of relationships, the film takes the video game metaphor at face value and turns it into a shiny veneer on another typical love story.
Overall assessment: Fun, but they should have spent more time on the script.