by Richard von Busack
Let me quote Brian Lee O’Malley on the hero of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: “Scott Pilgrim is 23 years old, living in the big city with his gay roommate, just trying to get by in this crazy world. He's in a band. He's lazy. He likes video games.” When a publicist or an agent sums up a character in such shorthand, it’s understandable—that’s marketing. When an author does it, it’s like looking at the chalk outline on a street where a dead body was.
O’Malley is certainly hard-working; currently in six volumes, the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels are the first comics in the English language to try to fill out the gargantuan, forest-denuding proportions of the Japanese manga. The film version does everything it can to fill out the outlines with in-jokes, frame-breakers and a kind of plot about a series of video-game battles. Certainly director Edgar Wright is very experienced handling this kind of keyed-up, urban lazybone-gamer comedy from his days on the excellent British TV series Spaced.
And sometimes Michael Cera (who plays Pilgrim) seems like this century’s Woody Allen. He’s more on to himself than Allen was. Audiences know there’s selfishness and malice underneath that lambie-pie face, bad hair and strangely poreless skin. When Cera was playing the bad boy in Youth In Revolt there was wit to seeing him being mustachioed and suave, and he had line readings in Year One that were worthy of Gene Wilder.
Despite Cera, Scott is just as undynamic a character as his creator described him. He’s busy only in the sense of how he strings along two girlfriends--the old Veronica and Betty dichotomy. The nice, too-loyal Betty is a Charlene Yi surrogate called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a punky high school girl with whom Pilgrim is still in the cuddling stage.
But Pilgrim, a no-visible means of support bass player of the band Sex Bob-Omb, spends his time obsessing over Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose nationality (American), multi-colored hair (mostly magenta or ultramarine) and romantic history (long and involved) make her seem exotic.
Ramona’s ex-lovers are in league against him. When not competing in battles of the band, he must defeat these exes in video-game style: with numbers flying in score-bar insets, and showers of gold coins flowing when they’re defeated.
The attempt to make a film that looks like a video game goes back as far as the Jackie Chan movie City Hunter (1993). Scott Pilgrim takes it from the 8-bit recreation of the Universal logo, to the kind of cartoon cutaways that make this the perfect date movie for adolescents who outgrew the Spy Kids franchise.
Ultimately, I’m on the world’s side in re: Scott Pilgrim. Watching it, you don’t feel that a new kind of language is being developed before your eyes. It’s retrograde, more so than even the good-girl, bad-girl dynamic; yes, good girls and bad girls are there in real life, too—as well as the girls who are neither primarily good or bad, the kind who never turn up in guy-bait movies like this. There’s a certain kind of video game, manga and anime fan who considers themselves half-Japanese through osmosis, but when they try to reproduce their idea of Asian culture—ninjas talking without contractions, everyone a cool, unsmiling killer—it’s just a new gloss on old stereotyping.
The heavily cyber-treated visuals, from the winter exteriors to grungy basements, close in on you like the walls in an Indiana Jones tomb. While Scott’s band is OK—a fuzztoned emulation of the White Stripes—the film’s sense of music is backward-looking, too; peripheral characters called “Stephen Stills” and “Young Neil,” everything but a stuffed toy buffalo named Springfield.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is material that’s been around the block many times, despite how it’s diced into splitscreen and augmented with animated popups. And there’s no central mystery to the way Ramona’s ex-lovers turn up spoiling for a kung-fu fight. Eventually, Scott is handed a list so that we can see how many more fights we have and how long the movie is going to last (too long, at close to two hours).