Directed by Edgar Wright
This is very much Wright’s show and he’s in complete control. While a little more transparency in his direction would have gone a long way–it’s possibly one of the most frenetically-paced movies ever madethe movie is incredibly funny not just due to the source material, but also due to Wright’s own sense of humor and his ability to make the most out of every single gag however big or small. In fact, it’s sometimes so hard to separate the bits from the books and those brought to the table by Wright himself that the results are essentially the perfect amalgam of innovative filmmaker with equally creative source material. The most immediately noticeable thing is how “un-British” the movie feels, especially since Wright, along with his usual conspirators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, successfully created a similar blueprint for modern British humor and culture as Monty Python did in their day. Instead, Wright’s mission this time around is to recreate for the viewer the experience of being a 20-something slacker in the hipster Toronto scene, a lifestyle that seemingly involves music, video games, parties, making out and little else.
The overall look of the movie is quite fascinating in the way Wright sometimes recreates full panels from O’Malley’s books down to the smallest detail, then other times drifts off to create something inspired by other sources. This is most apparent during the fantastic battle sequences where Wright’s talents deliver in a big way turning some fights into live action video games while paying homage to comic books and anime–complete with split screens, speed lines and words –with some of the best Hong Kong martial arts action you’re likely to see in a non-Asian film. When Ramona starts getting into the fights, the movie becomes most reminiscent of “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and that comparison also boils down to the fact that so many different influences are thrown into Wright’s stockpot you never feel as if you’re watching something derivative, maybe because he always shies away from normal movie formulas and tropes.
As much as the weight of making this material work falls squarely on Wright’s shoulders, it’s just as much about whether Michael Cera can pull off the suave cluelessness that makes Scott Pilgrim such a loveable comic character. Cera brings a similar boyish charm to Scott as he has with previous roles, but also exudes a confidence we haven’t seen from him before as he mans up to take on a more heroic role against Ramona’s Evil Exes. Up until that point, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s too-cool-for-school Ramona Flowers seems so out of his league in every possible way one might question what she’s doing with him. That’s because Winstead’s performance–never laughing and delivering a smile like the “Mona Lisa”–is akin to Zooey Deschanel’s character in just about anything she’s done but especially in “(500) Days of Summer.”
Then there’s Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, Scott’s significantly younger “fake high school girlfriend.” Wong may be the find of the century, her casting in the movie being as significant as Carey Mulligan in “An Education” last year, starting off innocent and naïve, full of awe at anything Scott says or does – you almost feel bad for her that it’s Scott who becomes her tour guide for the world outside high school. Not only is Wong absolutely adorable in every scene, she also provides some of the movie’s funniest laughs whenever she shows up, usually at the oddest and most awkward moments. In fact, her character is given a far more satisfying arc in the movie than in the comics, and it’s impressive how an actress with so little experience is able to deliver on every aspect of what that entails.
As much as this love triangle drives the movie, what keeps it so entertaining are all the side characters that act as a hipster Greek Chorus commenting on Scott’s many less-than-wise decisions. Kieran Culkin steals every scene as Wallace Wells, Scott Pilgrim’s snarky gay roommate, as does Aubrey Plaza as Julie Powers, the foul-mouthed acquaintance who shows up to criticize him. Allison Pill’s Kim Pine, the cynical drummer for Sex Bob-omb, delivers some of the funniest lines in a perfect deadpan, often getting laughs merely with a look or an arched eyebrow. Then there are the exes themselves–Chris Evans as a macho action star Lucas Lee and Brandon Routh as a pretentious Vegan bass player Todd Ingram–delivering heightened performances that perfectly enhance them as caricatures. At times, you almost feel bad for Cera that his character is often left playing straight man.
While some of the coolest and funniest moments are retained from the comics, Wright doesn’t shy away from the strange bits either. When Scott’s battle with Ramona’s first Evil Ex Matt Patel breaks out into song, it’s one of those times that could immediately lose those unfamiliar with the books. It’s also one of the times when Wright sticking with something so weird because it is from the books is actually quite commendable. Sometimes the zaniness goes a little too far, some points even in danger of veering into “The Spirit” territory–the “Seinfeld” reference comes from about as far left field as you can get–but things go by so quickly you just don’t have time to hold any ill will against it. Within seconds, you’re laughing or being wowed by something else, whether it’s a cool fight sequence or the way Scott’s opponents explode into a shower of coins.
The results are significantly better than “Kick-Ass,” mainly since when the movie does deviate from the books, mostly in the final half hour, it allows Wright to flex his creative muscles to create something truly epic. Scott’s fight with the Katayanagi Twins is the one time where his entire band gets involved in the fight and where Wright’s FX budget is stretched to its absolute limits. Normally, something so fantastic would be saved for the final battle yet there’s still an even more impressive set piece to come.
Even so, Wright never loses sight of the story amidst all the action, the side characters and other distractions, and the other obvious way he greatly improves upon the source material is that he gives Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb a much better arc than in the comics. This movie is just as much about them as it is about Scott’s quest for love with Ramona. The movie’s opening titles run over the band rehearsing and then it culminates in the band falling in with Ramona’s final Evil Ex, Jason Schwartzman’s Gideon G. Graves, a sleazy music producer who clearly has his hooks well into Ramona.
Musically, the film sports one of the hippest soundtracks of any movie this year, last year or in recent memory, from the 8-bit version of the Universal theme that opens it to various snippets sampled from classic video games to cool tunes by the likes of Beck and Broken Social Scene. When Scott’s own rock star ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (played by Brie Larson) appears on stage with her band The Clash at Demonhead performing Metric’s “Black Sheep,” it’s a moment that immediately elevates the movie from a series of quip-filled vignettes to something truly karmic. Likewise, the way the music performances are enhanced by abstract animation instills a subliminal layer of emotions in the viewer that’s hard to put into words.
The movie’s only real flaw, if it can be considered one, is that Wright clearly has way too much story and ideas on his hands to possibly fit into one movie. It worked out just fine for “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz,” but forcing so much story to move at such a lightning speed sometimes leaves one wanting to slow down and savor some of the movie’s finer moments. Maybe that’s why (like those movies) “Scott Pilgrim” is an experience that’s sure to only be enhanced by multiple viewings.
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