MOVIES: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” Directed by Edgar Wright

Fresh from the finale of his award-winning graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is taking the world by storm in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, directed by Shaun of the Dead and  Hot Fuzz‘s Edgar Wright.  But can Bryan Lee O’Malley’s vision of a world where romance and drama are inextricably linked to video games and over-the-top action work on the silver screen as well as it does in the pages of a comic?

The short answer is: Yes!

The long answer is: Yes, but it’s a fairly different experience (as almost any adaptation is.)

The first half of SPVtW plays out almost exactly as the first three graphic novels do, with the omission of some side characters such as Lisa Miller (who happens to be my favorite character in the series. *grumble*)  An interesting addition is a Dance Dance Revolution-style ninja fighting game that Scott and his 17-year-old semi-girlfriend Knives Chau play together at their local arcade, which helps develop their connection to one another and foreshadows events in the finale (as well as providing for some clever stunt work.) The story begins to take liberties with its source material in the second act, and many of the changes are welcome ones.  Elements from several of the fights in volumes 4-6 are mixed and matched to make them more visually appealing, and to trim down subplots for the sake of pacing.  Instead of a race through Honest Ed’s, we see a battle of the bassists.  Instead of a ninja duel, we see a reference to the Scott Pilgrim Free Comic Book Day all-color one-shot and a bit more fight work from Ramona.  Instead of a mostly off-panel robot battle, we see a truly epic battle of the bands that culminates in a fantastic explosion of light and sound.  And as for the finale, well… I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final battle has several differences from the book and a much bigger role for Knives. The only real disappointment is the fact that without those volumes of character development, Scott & Ramona’s love arc lacks believability and the ending feels a bit forced. While I wish there could’ve been enough time to see a completely faithful adaptation of all six volumes committed to film, I respect and appreciate the changes that Wright & Co. made for the sake of visual storytelling and time constraints.

Edgar Wright definitely understands the charm and appeal of the Scott Pilgrim story and pulls all of the best tricks from his Spaced playbook in order to bring them to celluloid.  In order to tell six volumes’ worth of plot in a single feature while keeping as many choice moments as possible from the source material, SPVtW moves at a truly breakneck pace. No scene ever has time to drag, and some of the jump-cuts and whip-pans are so fast that the audience may get a bit dizzy, but it never loses direction completely.  Indeed, everything moves with laser-like focus toward its climactic final scenes (as compared to the graphic novels’ tendency to relax and develop its characters for pages at a time.) There are dozens of great additions that make perfect sense for the medium, ranging from some excellent sight gags to a throw-away line by Michael Comeau (played briefly, yet expertly by The Office‘s Nelson Franklin) who explains, “The comic is way better than the movie!”  The fight scenes are rather impressive, and I’m curious to find out how many of their own stunts the cast was able to perform.  While some of the shots rely heavily on fast camera movements and dazzling lighting effects to distract the viewer from the use of stunt doubles, the effects are never overused and always keep with the aesthetic of the story.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Michael Cera semi-believably holding his own against the League of Evil Exes.

Speaking of Michael Cera holding his own, I’ll admit that I had low expectations for his performance as Scott Pilgrim.  He may be the most age- and physically-appropriate celebrity to play the part currently, but some new up-and-comer like Jesse Eisenberg or Aaron Johnson would likely have done an even better job.  That said, I’m pleased to report that Michael Cera does more real acting in SPVtW than in everything I’ve seen him do previously combined.  He comes very close to delivering a transformative performance, and completely nails one scene that echoes a favorite moment from The Princess Bride.  And while Cera’s performance came close to greatness at moments, the entire rest of the cast excelled at making the characters from O’Malley’s graphic novels come to life.  Alison Pill’s Kim Pine is scene-stealingly perfect, Ellen Wong’s Kinves Chau inspired “aww”s from the audience, and Chris Evans is a laugh riot as skateboarder-turned-gritty-action-star Lucas Lee. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a good job turning the very mysterious and epehmeral Ramona V. Flowers into a likeable, real character, and I’m sure she could’ve done more if the script would have afforded her the room to. Jason Schwartzman comes in late as Gideon Gordon Graves, but fits into the role like hand in glove, practically oozing sleaze out of his pores.  Kieran Culkin delivers such a charming performance as gay roommate Wallace Wells that Universal could probably pull off a spin-off sitcom if the movie does well at the box office (of course, it helps that he has some of the funniest lines in the script.)  The only big-name actor who seems underutilized is Brandon Routh, who looks a bit awkward with bleached-blonde hair and a hipster wardrobe. Still, an excellent set of performances all around!

Lest you think that the video game references were downplayed for a feature film audience, fear not! The movie begins with the Universal Pictures title sequence rendered in 8-bit graphics and sound, and the music from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past brings the viewer into the world of Scott Pilgrim.  There are plenty of great visual gags from the graphic novels sprinkled throughout (many of which are seen in the trailers) and more than a few use real classic Nintendo sound effects.  Many of the specific references to non-Nintendo titles are omitted (such as Sonic & Knuckles and Kid Chameleon) but the ones that remain are excellent and help bridge the gap between the game world and the “real” world.  The end credits even close with a sprite version of Scott punching a sign that says “The End” (using the in-game graphics from the upcoming Scott Pilgrim video game!)

Taken as a whole, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is a fantastic cinematic thrill-ride romantic-comedy-action flick. The performances are exceptional, the plot is entertaining (if a bit jam-packed), the visual effects are impressive (especially given the film’s modest budget) and the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. Fans of the graphic novels will definitely find plenty to love, and hopefully moviegoers unfamiliar with Scott Pilgrim will have a blast as well.

Oh, and for those who haven’t seen the superior International trailer, check it out below!

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One Response

  1. “The only big-name actor who seems underutilized is Brandon Routh, who looks a bit awkward with bleached-blonde hair and a hipster wardrobe.”

    I think that’s actually just Brandon Routh. He’s a bit awkward and wooden in everything I’ve seen him in. He was horrible in Chuck. HORRIBLE!

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