Michael Cera in 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World' offers emotional, amazing experience
I am prepared to stand face to face with anyone and defend Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" as a genuine, no-joke, out-of-the-ballpark masterwork, a pure expression of voice in service of a potent metaphor, an amazing ensemble comedy that works on the emotional level of the most joyous and romantic of the great Hollywood musicals. It is a jaw-dropping visual experience, and a sonic assault of pure pleasure. It is genuinely unlike any other movie I can name, and from the opening 8-bit Universal logo to the note-perfect final frames of film, it is shot through with confidence and with a wry understanding of the difficult realities of adult love. It is smart and sweet and left me buzzing when it ended, and I can't wait to see it again.
Based on a six-part series of comics by Bryan Lee O'Malley, the last of which was just published on Monday (and which is sitting here next to me, mostly unread still), "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" is a fairly simple story underneath all the style. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old dude living in Toronto, a year out from a fairly awful break-up. He lives with his gay friend Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and basically spends his time either hanging out with his band, Sex Bob-omb, or with his brand-new 17-year-old Chinese schoolgirl girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). He's hiding from adulthood, and quite successfully, too, until he meets the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and she sets him on a path towards either enlightenment or total destruction.
Plus video games, kung fu, and musical numbers.
There is an almost exhausting attention to detail in the film, and it's dense, each and every frame stuffed with information. The film borrows liberally from gaming and from anime and from underground Canadian rock and from any number of other places, but only in service of a love story that seems to me to be more honest and clear-eyed than most of what passes for "love" on film.
It's hard to tell a great love story precisely because the intangible nature of love allows it to mean different things to different people. There are people who only know the surface demonstrative sort of love, the early chemical rush of love, and who have very little experience with or patience for the various ways that love can mature or change or even wither. There are people who found a real and lasting love their first time at bat, and they genuinely don't understand why anyone else has any trouble with it. And there are those who just dig in and work at it, who want love in their lives and who are willing to compromise and adapt and redefine standards to get it.
Scott has to choose between two women in this film, and the script by Michael Bacall and Edgar is very smart about defining both Ramona and Knives. Ramona shows up mysteriously in a couple of different dreams of Scott's, even though he doesn't meet her in real life until a party after his first dream. She isn't looking for any sort of relationship with anyone, but Scott pursues her, even though he's still with Knives. He's not a bad guy. He just doesn't take Knives seriously. She's adorable and totally into him and she pays for everything everywhere they go, and she loves his band, and basically she just plain makes Scott feel good about himself. There's a revealing moment early on when she starts talking about a band she loves called The Clash At Demonhead, unaware that Envy Adams (who Knives adores) is actually Scott's ex-girlfriend. Scott is miserable immediately at the mention of Envy, but only partly because she broke his heart. He's also upset because Knives is suddenly not talking about him. He loves being worshipped by Knives, and she's completely unthreatening. They hold hands. That's it. It's sweet and no pressure and exactly what Scott needs, and the mere mention of his ex derails that completely for a moment. Knives is a blank slate, a girl so young and so untouched that Scott knows it will never go anywhere, making it perfect.
Ramona, on the other hand, is nothing but baggage. The film really kicks in when Scott is attacked by Matthew Patel (Satya Bahbha), who turns out to be Ramona's first Evil Ex-Boyfriend. Following a sort of amazing Bollywood-flavored moment, Ramona explains that Scott must defeat all seven of her Evil Exes before he can date her. To be with Ramona, he has to hurt Knives, and to be with Ramona, he must be hurt by the men she's already been with. That's a lot of hurt to go around, with no guarantees at all. And yet Scott is willing to hurl himself into harm's way because he believes she can be worth it. He is hiding from everything until Ramona comes along, at which point, he suddenly finds himself in one fight after another, getting hurt all over again, and this time it's worse than it's ever been before. And still, he keeps taking it. He keeps fighting, almost instinctively. Not sure why.
Which of the relationships you consider the one worth pursuing may say a lot about you as a person, and it certainly says something about the condition of your heart. There's such a sweet, innocent optimism to Knives and her view of Scott that it's easy to root for her. She does nothing but give, and she's nothing but decent, so she doesn't deserve to be pushed aside. With Ramona, though, if she really does give herself to him, there's real weight behind that. It means something because she knows exactly what the score is and what the risks are and how much it all could hurt. With Ramona, if you do get through the defenses, there's a chance to build something real because she's got experience. She's made her mistakes already, particularly if there are seven serious exes running around. What she wants from Scott is someone who won't challenge her or make things worse. Basically, she wants the uncomplicated dolt from Scott that Scott wants from Knives.
So if you're not rooting against anyone, but rather simply hoping to sort out what is best for these characters, you've suddenly made a very different class of "romantic comedy." You've made one that explores the notion that what we want is not always what we need, and that who we choose is not always the same as who chooses us. The fact that these characters burst into elaborate fights or use music to battle... it's just a different way of expressing the same core emotional truths. "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" is beautifully crafted, with exquisite cinematography by Bill ("The Matrix," "Team America: World Police," "Spider-Man 2," "Army Of Darkness") Pope, and the score by Nigel Godrich (which works seamlessly by the ocean of new songs written by various artists) is playful and crazy and hits all the right emotional moments.
The cast... god, this cast. They are all uniformly great. Kieran Culkin is going to walk away from this film with so many new fans. He's got remarkable comic timing, leading to some huge laughs, but he's always real. Jason Schwartzman makes a worth adversary for Michael Cera, and maintains a great creepy presence even when he's not around. Mark Webber and Allison Pill and Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick and Johnny Simmons make a great group of close friends for Scott, while Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson and Mae Whitman are fantastic foils.
For me, though, the film works because three specific performance work. Ellen Wong is a major find, adorable and funny and she nails every complicated note she has to play. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who I've always enjoyed in films, has her largest and most difficult role to play here, and she makes Ramona, a cipher on the page, totally understandable. And, of course, there's Michael Cera, and after seeing this, I can't image anyone else in the role. He plays the transformation of Scott in a very honest way, and the end result is, without a doubt, the best work he's done so far.
When a movie works as completely as this one does, it's hard to break down exactly why you're having the reaction you're having, but in this case, I think "Pilgrim" is a sort of perfect storm. It's a great premise, it's a great director, it's a great cast, and it's been a lousy summer. The public is ready, as the box-office on "Inception" seems to notice. They're ready to think while they have fun, and Edgar can't help but make smart films. It's also rare for a film this visually stylized, set in a reality this heightened, to be this sincere and sweet and heartfelt. Scott Pilgrim may feel like it's "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" sometimes, but as of right now, I'm on his side.
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