Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal) is a package of cinematic Pop Rocks, a neon-hued, defiantly non-nutritive confection that nonetheless makes you laugh at its sheer bold novelty. The pleasure of seeing this movie came as a surprise, given that my oversaturation with superhero or comic-book-related movies is now reaching medically dangerous levels. Scott Pilgrim was originally a series of comics by Canadian artist Bryan Lee O'Malley; after being published as a book, it has been adapted by British director Edgar Wright.
Wright may be one of the most exciting up-and-coming comic directors—not just a director of comedians, but a comic director. His previous films, Shaun of the Deadand Hot Fuzz, are tightly scripted, tonally precise spoofs, not shaggy collections of skits in the American style. Given Wright's knack for affectionate genre-skewering (the zombie movie in Shaun of the Dead, the cop thriller in Hot Fuzz), a comic-book movie seems like natural material for him.
Overexplaining Scott Pilgrim's plot would take away from the Pop Rock-exploding fun. Scott (Michael Cera) is the 22-year-old bassist for a mediocre Toronto punk band called Sex Bob-Omb. (Their songs, which I found a bit too realistically mediocre, were written by Beck.) Scott has a sassy gay roommate (Kieran Culkin), a meddling sister (Anna Kendrick), and a girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a Sex Bob-Omb superfan who's still in high school. But Scott falls hard when the purple-haired, poker-faced Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) moves to town. To win her, he must not only summon the courage to break up with Knives; he must defeat an evil legion of Ramona's seven exes, who include a vegan rock star (Brandon Routh), a Bollywood-dancing Goth (Satya Bhabha), and twin Japanese DJs (Shota and Keita Saito).
The clashes between Scott and his foes are cheerfully hyperbolic. One punch can send its victim flying for half a block, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon. When the bad guys are done for, they dissolve into heaps of gold coins as a video-game score flashes on the screen. (Text is constantly zipping through the frame in this movie, including written sound effects: "Thud!" "Wham!" "BRrrrring!") The fight scenes do get repetitive toward the end; seven exes make for a lot of vanquishing, and these battles are not short. But I admire the surefootedness with which Wright skips between psychological realism and formal playfulness. The boundary between what's taking place in the real world and what's a projection of Scott's psyche remains fluid—does it matter whether the exes he's battling actually have superpowers or whether it just feels that way?
Cera, who can be a brilliant comic in the right role, doesn't get enough to do here. Yes, he makes for a sweet romantic lead, but it's the combination of that quality with an acerbic dry wit that's the added value of casting Michael Cera. He's less miscast than misused as Scott, the hapless straight man at the center of a swirl of edgier, more crisply defined characters: the clingy but loyal Knives, the glamorous but dithering Ramona, and the devilish roomie Wallace, who may be remembered as Kieran Culkin's first great grownup role.
Watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World feels ADD-inducing, but agreeably so; it's like letting a pinball ding noisily around inside your head, bouncing off targets and racking up points. Rather than lazily relying on the audience's prior knowledge of the comic book, Wright re-creates the experience of reading it for us in a rhythmic onslaught of bright, punchy images. But the best gags in this nimble little movie are the grace notes, like the sitcom-style laugh track that accompanies Scott's exchanges with his roommate or the smug high-five exchanged by two cops as they sprint away from a crime scene. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has its flaws, but any movie that can make me sit up and take notice of post-adolescent superheroes in the summer of 2010 must have some kind of magic.