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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Style vs. Substance

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

With one (Toy Story 3) or possibly two (Inception) exceptions, this summer will be remembered — if it’s remembered at all — for a seemingly endless series of derivative, lackluster, uninspired mainstream films.

With the official end of summer only three weeks away, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright’s (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume comic book series, seems to be the last hope for one last quality mainstream film before Labor Day Weekend.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World centers on Scott W. Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a twenty-something slacker by temperament and choice who has few interests beyond playing bass guitar, not-so-secretly pining over his ex-girlfriend-turned-rock-star, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), and half-heartedly pursuing a time-wasting, non-physical romantic relationship with the 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).

Scott’s life changes when he meets Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a beautiful twenty-something who roller-skates her way through his dreams. When Scott discovers she’s real and not just a figment of his imagination, he pursues her with stalker-like intensity.

Ramona responds with hesitation, reluctance, and ambivalence. His unwillingness to break off his romance with Knives out of cowardice and egotism makes Scott a character of dubious likeability. Wright, however, wisely introduces Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s central conceit: Ramona’s ex-lovers have formed a League of Seven Evil Exes, who conspire to make sure she never dates again.

To get Scott Pilgrim vs. the World under two hours, Wright had to compact, condense, and compress more than 1,000 pages of O’Malley’s digest-sized comic-book series, leaving secondary characters with walk-on cameos; ironic, hipster dialogue, subplots downplayed or eliminated; and a singular focus on Scott’s battles with Ramona’s seven evil exes.

With each ex more difficult than the previous, Scott powers his way, videogame-style, to the most powerful evil ex and “big boss,” Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). But each battle, meant to literalize the metaphor that “love is a battlefield,” forces Scott to take halting steps toward emotional maturity, Scott’s real goal (Ramona is just a bonus).

Wright crams Scott’s battles with Ramona’s evil exes with often overwhelming overabundances of visual ideas, drawing from Bollywood musicals, action-hero tropes, superhero tropes, Warner Bros.’ cartoons, anime, and martial arts.

Wright came up with some of the most inventive visuals in recent memory and they are matched by an impeccable taste in indie music (Beck, Broken Social Scene, Metric, Cornelius, and Kid Koala contributed original material to the soundtrack), but unfortunately, Scott’s emotional journey toward maturity, embodied by Michael Cera’s uncool-but-cool hipster-slacker, isn’t compelling. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Scott’s journey from self-serving, egotistical, carless hipster to self-aware, empathetic, considerate hipster is, ultimately, a short road — one hampered by an arrested development, certainly, and a journey lacking emotional resonance.

The same, alas, can be said for Ramona. Since we’re always inside Scott’s head and follow him as he pursues his desires, we see Ramona primarily from Scott’s POV, not hers. What she saw in her exes remains murky, even with O’Malley’s comic book panels used for animated asides that take us, however briefly from Scott’s POV to Ramona’s. She’s the object of Scott’s desire, but never the subject of he own. It’s just one more example where Scott Pilgrim vs. the World disappoints dramatically.