The eponymous hero of “Scott Pilgrim v. The World,” played by Michael Cera, is a bassist in a crappy band who lives in a crappy apartment in Toronto and is still heartbroken over a breakup from more than a year ago. He wears tight-fitting thrift-store T-shirts and plays video games. His employment is oblique.
So far, so Cera — who has become the Hugh Grant of the sort of modern indie rom-coms that feature cool rock soundtracks, heartsick boys and sassy girls, and lots of awkward stuttering. But this story has a snappy conceit: What if Scott’s so called life is re-cast as an epic old-school video game adventure? When he falls for the new girl in town, a mysterious punk-rock scenester with big sheepish eyes and cotton-candy-colored hair, it turns out that in order to date her he has to defeat her seven evil ex-lovers via surreal battles, all lovingly filmed in a madcap, fantasy-comic-gamer pastiche. Like levels in a video game! Awesome!
“Pilgrim” is based on a graphic novel series by Canadian comic-book artist Bryan Lee O’Malley, and director Edgar Wright pulls off a mesmerizing job of transporting the antic energy and dream logic of graphic narratives to film. Time and physical space jilt and jolt, as one vibrant set piece after another flashes by in horizontal motion. Gimmicks from the world of cartoons, comics and video games fly by in a dissociative barrage: “Batman”-style splashes of “ZAP!” and “POW!”; vanquished villains dissolving into piles of coins, with corresponding points; strength ratings for characters; an extra life gained (and used) by our hero. Even a trip to the bathroom is re-imagined with arcade graphics.
All of the zippy chop cuts lend otherwise missing speed and movement to the lives of the film’s young losers. The characters seem half asleep (one thinks of the zombies from Wright’s earlier film “Shaun of the Dead”), emotionally decomposing into their second-hand furniture in the casually mannered malaise of half-clever slackers. Sample exchange:
“This is gonna suck.”
“At least it will give us something to complain about.”
If the characters are slack, the film decidedly isn’t: In the long hot months of crappy summer movies, there is undeniable joy in the sheer surprise of a project this committed to its own mischievous instincts. Once you settle in to the hijinks, however, it’s hard not to grow disappointed with the story itself. Structurally, the film mixes fantastical style with humdrum drama in a manner that promises some allegorical punch: Imagine a teeny-bopper magical realism in which an imagined universe of cartoon dragons and kung-fu showdowns accents and complicates real human emotions. Unfortunately, the stakes in “Pilgrim’s” real world never rise to anywhere near the fevered pitch of the fantasy.
For a movie so steeped in emo culture, there is a total void when it comes to actual emotion. The love stories fall flat — it’s difficult to care about characters who don’t care about anything themselves. “Pilgrim” might have been a psychedelic “Breakfast Club” or an 8-bit “Annie Hall”; instead it’s just mild pixilated fun.
Part of the trouble is Cera’s protagonist. After a while, his solipsistic crybaby routine — massively oversensitive but indifferent to the feelings of others — is just grating and mean. If Scott Pilgrim is facing off against the world, I’m rooting for the world. I’m guessing that the bet here was on Cera’s basic likeability, and he gamely stammers in his trademark wilting falsetto, but I’m afraid that the charms of his infantilized self-deprecation have passed their shelf life.
If the story lacks heart, it also lacks the satiric bite of Wright’s previous work, riotous send-ups of zombie and cop movies set in his native England. Those films smartly tweak both the genres and the middle-class manners of their milieu; “Pilgrim” settles for wish fulfillment for its hipsters, right down to the covert misogyny of sex-averse indie culture. Gender dynamics in the film: females — endlessly patient, fundamentally kind, alluringly sweet, great outfits, acerbic humor, intelligent, wise, long suffering, hot but pure as Canadian snow. Males — weepy. Pilgrim’s quest in the film is to gain the self respect to believe that he’s good enough for the girls he likes, but one is forced to conclude that, in fact, he’s not.
Am I just being no fun? Probably. But if Scott Pilgrim is allowed to dream up a world where he wins the girl by vanquishing a league of evil exes, allow me to dream up a film with characters that pop as richly as its cinematic tricks.
— David Ramsey