In many ways, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the equivalent of the Twilight Saga for boys. It is deeply rooted in pubescent romantic fantasy, albeit this time from the male's point of view. It is foolish and shallow about the ways of relationships, pandering to the basest instincts of the target audience. Like the Twilight Saga, one could argue that the lessons imparted from this film could be almost dangerous if applied to the real world, although I will again remark that it's only an escapist fantasy. And like that blockbuster series, I genuinely enjoyed nearly everything about it except for the core love triangle. The film is visually dazzling, often stunningly imaginative and playful. It is bright and colorful and filled to the brim with delightful and intelligent supporting characters. I just couldn't stand to spend any real time with Bella, Edward, and Jacob... I mean Scott Pilgrim, Ramona Flowers, and Knives Chau.
A token amount of plot: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is an aimless 22-year old rocker who is still heartbroken after his girlfriend 'kicked his heart in the ass' (broke up with him and then became a successful rock star) well over a year ago. He's currently involved with Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a seventeen-year old Asian Catholic schoolgirl who worships the ground he walks on while he barely gives her the time of day or any real affection. None the less, he is instantly smitten when he spots Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party and quickly begins to date her as well. Alas, Flowers has neglected to mention that in order to date her, Scott must defeat her seven 'evil' exes in glorious 'mortal kombat'. Can Scott Pilgrim defeat the exes, be honest with Knives, win the girl, and help his band make it big?
First the good news: the film is an audio/visual wonderland, as the simple narrative gives way to a potent mash up between comic book and video game worlds. Sound effects are spelled out onscreen, the film is edited together like a 'cut scene' from an 80s video game, and the action scenes are bursting with larger than life moments from any given video game over the last thirty years (defeated foes explode into a pile of gold coins). The film is filled with colorful dialogue and quirky supporting characters. Kieren Culkin has a star-making turn as Scott's gay roommate, someone who reminds us that the best friends are the ones who tell us to go to hell. If the film makes his character a bit too much about being gay, then at least he's allowed to have an active and onscreen love life. Anna Kendrick has a few amusing scenes as Scott's empathetic but frustrated sister, and Aubrey Plaza is almost a walking, talking rebuttal to the absurdly naive core romance. And at least a few of the 'evil exes' make an impression, as Chris Evans is amusing as an action film star and Brandon Routh scores big laughs as a rocker whose devotion to veganism gives him super powers (intentional or not, he ends up resembling the much-derided 'lightning Superman' from the late 1990s).
Alas, in the middle of this video game come to life is a stunningly hollow center. While any number of films can survive a passive protagonist, having an actively self-destructing and/or obnoxiously moronic protagonist is usually fatal. Scott Pilgrim, through little fault of Michael Cera, is a stunningly unsympathetic lead character. He is lazy, careless, thoughtlessly cruel, and completely self-pitying. He ignores the needs and wishes of his fellow band members and completely uses the worshiping Knives for no particular purpose other than to feed his own withering ego. His pursuit of Ramona Flowers basically amounts to making as much of an ass out of himself as possible yet still winning her affection because Winstead read the script ahead of time. Even after he's inexplicably stolen Ramona's heart (or at least her passing interest), he spends most of the time in a swirl of self-pity in the 'why does she like me?/when will she dump me?' vein. That the lead character is pretty much a hardcore loser who eventually learns a lesson (at the last possible moment of this nearly-two hour film) isn't the problem. The problem is that we're supposed to be rooting for this moron from the first minute. By thirty minutes in, I was solidly on the side of 'the World'.
As for Knives, Ellen Wong certainly gives it her all. But since we like her in that lost puppy kind of way, we feel a constant swell of pity whenever she's onscreen, as nearly every moment is filled with hurt and sorrow at the hands of 'our hero.' Ramona Flowers is herself a severely under-developed character. And frankly, without going into spoiler details, any bits of romantic substance to be gleaned from this film were dealt with in a more mature and adult manner in She's Out of My League. While the film seems to be about Scott Pilgrim overcoming Ramona's emotional baggage, the climax throws that all out the window for a finale where Scott Pilgrim literally has to rescue Ramona, who is now revealed as a brainwashed hostage of the final 'evil ex.' Remember kids, that girl you like isn't really having issues dealing with past crappy relationships, she's just under the mind control of her slimy ex-boyfriend, and it's your job to save her. The gall of the film to just toss out whatever little bits of substance it contained in order to go into full-on hero-complex fantasy is just appalling (when Scott enters the villain's lair, Ramona is literally kneeling like a dog beside her ex-boyfriend's throne).
Okay, so I found the film's romantic politics more than a bit disconcerting and I found the lead character to be relatively insufferable. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the film isn't genuinely entertaining and occasionally smart. Although, to be completely honest, the film runs out of narrative steam about an hour into it (the battles with exes four, five, and six could have been cut completely with no real effect). I bent over backwards to be fair with the Twilight Saga (Twilight and Eclipse anyway), basically saying that I could forgive the issues with its core romantic triangle because I liked the world where it existed and the colorful supporting characters. And the two would-be franchises are surprisingly similar in their core character relationships. Scott is the low self-esteem lead who clings to and obsesses about the unattainable and emotionally distant hottie Ramona, while Knives is the lovesick kid who Scott keeps around for kicks despite having no real interest in her. Sound familiar? Heck, in this love triangle, the only one who really grows up is Knives, which gives the film an advantage over the Twilight Saga where Jacob is still pining for Bella at the end of three pictures. So if I can give Twilight a pass, why not this Edgar Wright video game epic?
Perhaps the reason I am less forgiving of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is because this film is specifically aimed at me. Yes, I know that I may be a bit older than the core demo, but I know full-well that the 15-year old Scott Mendelson would have found this movie condescending, patronizing and naive as well. Sitting in the theater, it was almost embarrassing to realize that this film's ideas about romantic politics was directly aimed at my demographic. Perhaps Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is Israel. Sure, there are many other countries in the world who behave worse than Israel. But as a Jewish American, when Israel screws up, I take it personally and am that much more critical of them as a result. As something that is supposed to represent the movie-going tastes of my specific demographic, I damn well take it personally when Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World ends up dropping the ball in such a fashion. In the realm of relationships, this film makes us nerds look awfully stupid.
Read more from Scott Mendelson here.