January 05, 2011

MOVIES: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

I've never seen a movie so utterly devoted to the comic book/video game aesthetic as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It doesn't always work, but its best moments are remarkable.

Michael Cera stars, playing the guy Michael Cera always plays; this time, he's named Scott Pilgrim, and he's a schlumpy Toronto hipster wannabe, currently between jobs and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-Omb. He has a girlfriend, a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but is drifting through life rather aimlessly.

Then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and it's love at first sight. She's sexy, funny, and the fact that she's not impressed by Scott's feeble arsenal of opening lines and anecdotes is half the appeal. Unfortunately, she comes with baggage -- seven evil exes, whom Scott must defeat in martial arts battles if he is to continue dating Ramona.

The battles are staged as video games. Point values appear in midair and coins drop from the sky each time Scott punches an opponent; Scott and the exes leap through the sky like characters in kung-fu movies; a particular impressive victory even wins Scott an extra life.

That's not the extent of director Edgar Wright's visual creativity, though. The screen is frequently filled (even in non-battle moments) with Batman-style sound effects ("thunk" and "pow" and so on) and animated emotional graphics (little hearts float through the air when Scott and Ramona kiss). It all gets to be a bit much, with the visuals occasionally detracting from the story.

Some of the effects, though, are lovely. Scott and Knives are in a record store when he breaks up with her, and at the moment he says the word, the set disappears and they're floating in a black void. There's a marvelous shot of the crowd at a rock club -- everyone dressed in black and gray, with Ramona's blue hair glowing like a beacon in the middle of the room.

The movie would have been well served by cutting back on the battle scenes. When they're spread out over several issues of a comic book, they probably don't feel so repetitious, but six big battles in a 2-hour movie are hard to keep interesting, and even the individual battles could have been shortened.

Cera is an actor of limited range, but he's capable of surprising subtlety within that range, and is often quite funny here. Love the deadpan reaction to finding out that one of Ramona's exes, an action movie star, is filming in town: "They shoot movies in Toronto?" And some of the supporting players are terrific -- Chris Evans as that lunkhead actor, Anna Kendrick as Scott's big sister, Kieran Culkin as his gay roommate. Brandon Routh is surprisingly funny as a sanctimonious vegan.

This might have worked better as a TV miniseries instead of a movie. Devote an hour each week to one ex, culminating in the battle, which gives you time to better flesh out the characters and focus on the relationship story, which often gets lost in the visual whirlwind. But there are enough terrific moments along the way, and enough entertaining performances, that I'm glad to have seen the movie.

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