In the films of British director Edgar Wright, there's a fluid connection between real life and the trashiest pop culture. His Shaun of the Dead was a zombie rehash -- but Wright used all those borrowed tropes to satirize provincial English complacency in a way that had never been done.
Now, in the comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright uses a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley as a springboard for showing how rock-'n'-roll and video games fuel the most outrageous fantasies -- even in the most mundane places.
O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim centers on a 20-something down-and-out Toronto bass player, played onscreen by Michael Cera. Most of the time, Scott shares a mattress in a crummy one-room dive with a gay friend played with sly understatement by Kieran Culkin, and he dates a high-school girl named Knives Chau, played by the buoyant Ellen Wong. Then he falls for Mary Elizabeth Winstead's magenta-haired punk Rollerblader Ramona Flowers -- and learns that he might soon be besieged by her jealous exes.
"If we're going to date, you may have to defeat my Seven Evil Exes," she explains as the two sit together on a bus.
"You have seven evil ex-boyfriends?" asks Scott.
"Seven Evil Exes -- yes," she says.
"And I have to fight --?"
"Defeat," she interjects.
"Defeat your Seven Evil Exes if we're going to continue to date?" he asks.
"Pretty much," she says.
That mix of the deadpan and the outlandish is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World at its best. Seven Evil Exes? Well, yes. They appear, one by one (and occasionally by twos), in the rock clubs where Scott and his band are playing -- and suddenly, with no explanation, Scott transforms into a superhero, a flying, kung-fu fighting, rock-'n'-roll warrior. People blast one another with death rays and fling one another through walls. And in several scenes, the screen splits horizontally: Scott rockets from right to left on top while his adversary barrels from left to right below. Crazy as all this is, there's a level on which it does connect with Scott's emotional reality, with the feeling of transcendence he has onstage playing bass -- a bass that here throws bolts at the sky.
At first, the crazy-quilt inventiveness of Wright's movie is elating. It has a look all its own, part comic-book panel, part arcade video-game screen -- from the era of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Even the Universal pictures logo is rendered as a crude arcade-game graphic. "Fun facts" and character IDs pop up. When Scott and Ramona smooch, pink hearts float out of the screen.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could have been among the coolest movies ever made. But it runs down. The parade of super-villain exes -- among them Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman (as their evil overlord) -- is like a forced march; I felt I'd had my fill of the fights when there were still five exes to go.
But the biggest problem is, alas, Scott Pilgrim. Cera dials down his patented high-pitched hysteria, but our superhero is still a super-cipher. That might work if the disjunction between his wishy-washyness and his powers were played for satire. But it's just a disjunction. He doesn't earn those powers -- and he certainly doesn't earn the dishy Ramona, who inspires the film's most lyrical sight gag when she heads off into the night and the snow glows and melts under her Rollerblades.
Director Edgar Wright has done thrilling work, but he can't find here the connection between life and pop that he found in his other films. Scott Pilgrim doesn't seem lit from within. He's a superhero for dim bulbs.