Saturday, August 21, 2010

Movie Review: "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"

Normally I don't care enough to make more than a passing note of what films succeed or fail at the box office. If I liked a film, I consider it a success. If I dislike it, I don't care how much money it made - it remains a bad movie.

But once in awhile, moviegoers make a huge mistake. And last week, that was ignoring "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," one of the year's most original, funny and enjoyable movies. Moviegoers instead decided they'd rather see Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell or take a third go-around with "Inception," leaving the adventures of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) to settle for fifth place at $10 million.

Nothing against those choices - I enjoyed most of them. And I can understand why some may be a bit reluctant to see a film so heavily steeped in geek culture that it plasters its video game and comic book influences on the screen.

But gamer or not, there's a lot to enjoy in "Scott Pilgrim." Director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz") has crafted a modern-day slacker epic so packed full of action, romance, comedy and fantasy that the film sometimes seems at risk of toppling under its own whimsy. It's a miracle that Wright brings this all to life with a steady hand and a skill at controlling chaos, turning what could have been a hollow action-comedy into a funny, exciting and surprisingly smart look at maturity and relationships.

To be sure, Scott doesn't have much of either at the start of the film. A self-absorbed slacker who avoids steady jobs so he can play bass in his garage band Sex Bob-omb, Scott is rebounding from a broken heart by dating a 17-year-old high school student Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Knives may be a poor dating option, but Scott isn't looking for a relationship - he's content to just stay at the hand-holding stage, so long as Knives tells him how much she adores him.

But then, one night, Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams when Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblades through his subconscious. After a disastrous encounter at a party, Scott tries again with Ramona and the two start dating. Things are progressing nicely until Scott learns what every person who has been in a relationship discovers at one time or another: Partners come with baggage.

In this case, however, the baggage takes the form of seven evil ex-boyfriends, who Scott must battle to the death if he is to win Ramona's hand. These exes include a Bollywood-singing hipster (Satya Bhabha), a punk-rock chick (Mae Whitman), a psychic who gains his powers from veganism (Brandon Routh) and a Hollywood action star (Chris Evans).

These fights are staged by Wright with the flair and energy of musical numbers - sometimes literally employing song and dance. Influenced by gamer culture, "Scott Pilgrim" unleashes a visual and aural assault on audiences, with every "smack!" and "kapow!" boldly flashed onscreen, guitar bass lines that erupt into sonic waves and villains that transform into coins when they are defeated. Wright also employs comic book tropes - such as abrupt "panel shifts" in lieu of cuts and written narration - to keep the film moving at a bullet's pace.

There's so much wit on display - a Bollywood number here, vegan superpowers there - that "Scott Pilgrim" could easily risk being ADD-adled and empty. But Wright, who showed a skill at tweaking genres while celebrating them with his previous films, allows the film to show a surprising maturity and understanding. Scott never questions his newfound skills or ridiculous situation because, as a slacker steeped in gamer culture, this is how the world appears to him. Who hasn't felt like they've had to fight against the men or women their current love knew in the past? And who hasn't ever looked forward to falling in love, only to discover that it's a battle and we have to face our own demons, put a little elbow grease into the relationship and do some growing up - even if it means facing our own flaws. "Scott Pilgrim" may be hilarious fun, but there's a strong heart propelling it from start to finish.

It helps that all the comedic anarchy is grounded by one of the year's best ensembles. Cera is the go-to guy for playing awkward youths, but he finds new notes to play as self-obsessed, somewhat narcissistic Pilgrim. Winstead ably portrays Ramona as the punk girl every guy wants, with an air of mystery about her. Each of the evil exes appear to be having the time of their lives hamming it up for the role, but none get as many laughs as Routh, playing the perfect tool as the Vegan supervillain. Even the supporting actors get big laughs in their scenes; Wong has an enthusiasm and innocence about Knives that makes her a sympathetic heroine, and Kieran Culkin steals the film's biggest laughs as Scott's sardonic gay roommate.

Every year I ask for just one movie that shows me something I haven't seen before. And while "Inception" deservedly gets a lot of attention for its trippy narrative and action sequences, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" blasts out of the gate with so much visual wit, energy and charm that it's impossible to dislike. It opens, with an 8-bit video game graphic of the Universal logo and charges through, never putting the same joke on screen twice, and gaining big laughs from its plethora of video game, television, movie and comic book references. By the time the film ends, asking the audience if we'd like to continue, I was already reaching for more quarters.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.