Friday, August 13, 2010

Level Up: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

The first thing I noticed about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was that it’s a movie with interesting haircuts. The actors have hairdos that stick out in unnatural flips and strange angles, curvy bowls, supernatural spikes and neon colors, though not all on the same person at the same time. These are endearingly odd hairstyles. But that’s losing track of the point of the movie, isn’t it?

This is an aesthetically daring and improbably successful pop-art confection. Based on the cult comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley, unread by me, Edgar Wright’s film is a heady mash-up of influences, from manga to Mortal Kombat and from musicals and kung-fu movies to indie rock, Looney Tunes, and Super Mario. Far from being a woeful jumble of colliding reference points, the film adds up into a surprisingly effective cohesive experience, an arch actioner nestled inside a soulful comedy.

It’s a film in which the character’s strongest emotions manifest themselves externally, in the form of superpowers portrayed with zany cartoon embellishments and video-game trappings. Hence the dramatic supercharged duels that pepper the plot. It’s both a comment upon and a celebration of a certain youth culture that filters life’s experiences through pop culture.

At the center is Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old in a struggling garage-band that doesn’t even have a garage to practice in. He’s a pathetic guy, “chronically enfeebled” according to his sister (Anna Kendrick). On the rebound from a devastating breakup, he finds himself dating a clingy high school girl (Ellen Wong). His sister tries to talk him out of the relationship. His bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, and Mark Webber) think it’s a bad idea. His platonic gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) warns him against it. I think even Scott, deep down, knows this new relationship has no future.

Enter Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s gorgeous, alluring, smart and funny. Scott is immediately in love. Soon, the two of them take tentative steps towards dating. But Ramona’s weighed down by the burdens of her past relationships. And this is no ordinary baggage. If Scott wants Ramona, if he truly loves her, he will have to fight and defeat her Seven Evil Exes, who have formed a League of Evil Exes under the command of the nefarious Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), oft mentioned, but unseen until the climax.

The movie proceeds in video-game style, with the pitch-perfect comedic timing of the characters’ interactions periodically intersected with fights that erupt with a visual brio that varies depending on which ex (or “level,” if you will) Scott is currently trying to beat on his way to the final Boss Fight. There’s a battle where the weapon of choice is sound waves; another finds Scott’s punches and kicks accompanied by big bold onomatopoeias (Bam! Pow! K.O.!). When defeated, the adversaries explode in a shower of coins.

The exes are often funny, featuring interestingly weird turns from the likes of Brandon Routh and Chris Evans. They’re one-note characters, but it’s fitting, given that Scott is fighting less the actual exes and more the idea of them. He’s fighting people he doesn’t even know for the love of a girl. He’s fighting to be better than all that she’s had before. And isn’t that an essential truth of relationships?

Sure, the plot gets clumpy and episodic. Its risks don’t always pay off as well as they should, but this film is still a blast. The cast is up for anything, trusting that their deadpan stylistic line readings and wild gesticulations would match up and make sense in the context of the whole explosive CGI-frenzy of the visual style that’s as rich and complicated as the characters are thin. They’re well served by Edgar Wright’s sure grasp on the tone and his nimble mingling of the visual and emotional. Together they create a brisk and winning film, surely the most formally challenging big studio picture since Speed Racer.

Scott Pilgrim is at its most satisfying when it’s at its most dizzyingly original and inventive, turning the stuff of low-culture into high-concept entertainment. After his excellent Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright has created yet another B-movie with a big heart, a scruffy genre outing with shiny surfaces.

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