There’s almost too much of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to handle. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of compressing an entire graphic novel series into a single film. Perhaps it’s the unavoidable pitfall of choosing an aesthetic so overwhelming that advil might be an acceptable substitute for popcorn. But only one thing is for certain: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not know how to handle itself. It’s too ambitious, too creative, and too dedicated to its aesthetic to remember to follow basic rules of narrative and pacing. As a result, Scott Pilgrim is consistently ingenious and original only in terms of its moment-to-moment filmmaking craft. It’s a great series of clips, but it can’t tie itself down to become a great movie.
That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching; Scott Pilgrim is absolutely saturated with style, at times resembling a fighting game, an anime, and a martial-arts extravaganza all at once. Most every moment contains some sort of expressive vignette (ie, sounds often appear spelled out within the frame, 1960s-Batman style) or a bizarre (yet almost universally effective) editing trick that never would have been considered in film school. It shines with a neon sheen, and the crowded fast-paced effects-filled action is chaotic while still somehow remaining (unlike most American action scenes) easy to understand. Its dorky titular protagonist defies gravity as he flies across the screen like a superhero, encapsulating the fantasies that all nerds have of transforming their (or rather, our) average bodies into the champions of our media.
The sense of empowerment is thrilling, but all too often it ends up drowned out by confusion. Scott Pilgrim’s story is almost incomprehensible, despite its simplicity, and it alternately moves too slowly (almost nothing happens for the first half hour) and too quickly (the last 45 minutes are fight scene after fight scene, all of which are well put together, but none of which significantly stand out from the rest). Pilgrim is tasked with eliminating the seven evil exes (not necessarily ex-boyfriends, as he is often corrected) of his new girlfriend, an aloof girl with brightly colored hair named Ramona. Scott Pilgrim makes a joke out of the fact that it doesn’t actually explain this motivation until well after the movie is running full force, but the joke certainly isn’t funny. The first time an “ex” appears, and the movie leaps out of the relative normalcy of its first half into utterly surreal retro-game-style action, it feels like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without ever being taught how to swim. Scott Pilgrim is one of those films that you simply have to accept at face value because its internal logic is so nutty it becomes impossible to follow. That itself is fine, but it would have been better if the film actually signposted for us that this was how it was going to be, instead of expecting us to adjust for ourselves after a somewhat lackluster first act.
The film is lifted by its casting, which uses the typecast-reputations of big names to embody the cartoony, exaggerated roles of its comic-book world. We can tell that the Aubrey Plaza character is going to be dryly sarcastic, because that’s who Aubrey Plaza is. We can tell that the Chris Evans character will be a confident action-packed he-man, because that’s who Chris Evans is. Despite the fact that so many characters are packed into so short a film with such few introductions, this phenomenon demystifies each character and allows the audience a chance to orient themselves. Michael Cera in particular is an absolutely perfect Scott Pilgrim, bringing a shy sincerity and a reserved sense of humor to the character.
I have to confess to the nerd-crime of having never read the Scott Pilgrim comics, but given their relative obscurity outside of a certain fandom, that likely gives me the same perspective as most potential viewers of Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The people who’ve read the comics (excuse me, graphic novels) seem to think that the film is a loyal representation. But there may be something in saying that this was an adaptation that either shouldn’t have happened or should have happened over a series of films rather than a single one. Its originality makes it worth seeing, and its flashy action certainly keeps it enjoyable, but taken as a film rather than as a series of scenes it’s an overstuffed mess, dull near the beginning, preachy near the end, and relentless in the middle. Director Edgar Wright has never made a more creative film, but he’s certainly made better ones.