One musical trend that I’ve found particularly fascinating over the last few years is the mashup, in which two or more completely dissimilar songs (e.g., “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Bootylicious”, “Every Kinda People” and “Creep”) are mashed together, with the sum being greater than the whole of its parts (e.g., 2ManyDJs’ “Smells like Booty”, Totom’s “Every Kind Of Creep” respectively). Mashups have been around for a long time, but the rise of DJ culture, laptops and music software, and the increasing availability of musical in digital format has caused the genre — if it can even be called a genre proper — to explode in the last decade or so.
At their best, mashups can be thrilling things, gleefully deconstructing and ripping apart traditional genres and tossing them back together with wild abandon. The result are songs that just shouldn’t add up on paper according to our normal musical arithmetic, but nevertheless sound like a distillation of everything that you love about music. At their worst, however, mashups can be pedestrian and obvious, and even worse, reveal just how deeply indebted one artist is too another, or how little some forms of pop music have advanced past their origins.
I bring all of this up because Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is essentially a pop culture mashup blending together everything from kung fu movies to anime, from classic 8-bit video games to comic books, from indie rock to TV sitcoms. Helming the film is Edgar Wright (adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s acclaimed comic book), arguably modern cinema’s greatest mashup artist, a title that he as earned with the seminal TV show Spaced and via such cult hits as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
Like musical mashups, there are moments in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that are nearly transcendent in how they meld together disparate sources, tropes, and even clichés — and all with Wright’s amazing sense of style and usage of effects. But at the same time, there’s an undeniable unevenness to the film and moments it isn’t able to transcend its myriad influences.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old slacker living in Toronto who plays bass in the band Sex Bob-omb. He’s recently begun dating a 17-year-old named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to his friends’ consternation. That all changes, though, when Scott encounters the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), first as she rollerblades through his subconscious and later at a few random encounters. He immediately dumps Knives (without telling her) to begin pursuing Ramona, who at first rebuffs his affections but slowly begins to warm up to his charms.
Unfortunately, that’s when Ramona’s League of Evil Exes shows up to make things really difficult for our young indie lovers.
In order to truly be with Ramona, Scott will have to defeat all of her seven evil exes, which include psychic vegan rock stars, famous actors with their own stunt crews, and even a teleporting ninja. Luckily, Scott is no slouch in the fighting department, and the battle for Ramona’s heart begins, Mortal Kombat style. Round one, fight!
When the film worked — which it did, more often than not — it left me positively giddy with a huge smile on my face. Wright has long been one of my favorite filmmakers: he has an amazing sense of style and panache that he wields with seemingly no effort, and more importantly, he knows how to use said style to enhance, deepen, and advance the storyline. That’s really true here, the most stylized film of his to date.
This is most obvious when Scott dukes it out with the evil exes. Like a mad scientist, Wright borrows from the visual language of video games, anime, martial arts movies, and comic books. Characters battle in the air with 64-hit combos and flaming swords that they’ve pulled out of their own chest; they send each other flying through brick walls with punches, kicks, and energy blasts from hipster demon chicks; and they engage in bass guitar battles. And it’s all accented with onscreen sound effects (think the old Batman TV series from the 60s), vital stat boxes for each character, and other visual elements. On paper, this sounds like a mess, but to Wright’s credit, he’s able to pack the screen with all of the above while rarely, if ever, becoming incoherent.
Thankfully, the film never deigns to explain why any of this is happening. Is it all in Scott’s head? Is Canada simply a magical place where superpowers, flaming chest swords, and great indie-rock exist side by side? Like a musical, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World shifts from characters talking to characters singing and dancing (or in this case, launching into mid-air duels) in the blink of an eye, the characters never missing a beat or expressing much surprise at the sudden shift in activity.
While Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a perfect example of style as substance — Josh Hurst’s comparisons to the unjustly maligned Speed Racer are spot on — style isn’t all the movie has going for it. The movie is a masterstroke of casting, and while most of the focus is obviously on Scott and Ramona (more on this in a bit), the movie is very generous is giving nearly every character a moment to shine.
Ellen Wong is cute as a button as the head-over-heels Knives, the movie’s most sympathetic character. Scott’s friends and bandmates are given some of the most biting lines, as they seek to keep Scott on track with their dreams of rock n’ roll stardom while confronting his naiveté. And let’s not forget Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace Wells (played to perfection by Kieran Culkin) and his coterie of boyfriends.
But arguably, the film’s real stars are the villains. Jason Schwartzman chews up the scenery with smarm to spare as the main bad guy, Gideon Graves; Chris Evans is simply fantastic as the skateboarder-turned-actor Lucas Lee; and Brandon Routh was born to play psychic vegan rock star Todd Ingram. However, my favorite villain performance is Satya Bhabha as Evil Ex #1 Matthew Patel, who brings pirate and Bollywood flair to his duel with Scott. He has to provide most of the exposition concerning the League of Evil Exes to Scott and the audience, and he pulls it off wonderfully with the requisite smugness.
So I think we’ve finally and firmly established that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie full of “win”, as the kids might say. But it’s not perfect.
The film’s biggest weakness is that it gives Scott and Ramona’s relationship — that which is supposed to be the film’s emotional core — short shrift. It’s hard to root too much for our young lovers because they just don’t seem to have much of a relationship to start with. Rather, their relationship is just relegated to the device that takes Scott from one boss battle to the next. Which isn’t too surprising, seeing as how the movie’s emphasis is clearly on the boss battles.
However, the comic gives much more room for the couple’s relationship to grow, as Scott and Ramona work through all of their baggage via long walks and talks, not to mention other smaller and rather poignant character moments in which they realize just how damaged and damaging they are. Granted, it’s a daunting task to adapt six volumes and condense it all into a single two hour film: some things just aren’t going to make it into the script and/or film. Still, when you realize that Scott’s relationship with Knives has more depth and intrigue than his relationship with Ramona, you do wish that some of the film’s panache had been replaced with a some quieter, more character-oriented moments.
And while the movie’s explosion of style is, for the most part, handled with almost preternatural skill and aplomb, it does occasionally get away from Wright. One example that immediately comes to mind is the “Seinfeld scene”, in which the movie soundtracks Scott’s actions with audio cues ripped right from the classic sitcom, right down to the laugh track. The scene took me out of the film’s world by projecting onto it a sense of reality that seemed out of the ordinary — way more so than guys battling each other in mid-air. (Then again, I hated Seinfeld, so maybe I’m just predisposed against wonky synth-bass solos.)
Before I wrap up this review, I want to quickly address the criticism that Jeffrey wrote about earlier in the month — specifically that the movie treats women as property to be fought over. Basically, I think it’s a load of hooey. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that I wonder if folks advocating that approach actually paid attention to the film’s final act. Here, we see Scott finally coming to some realizations about himself and the way that he treated the women in his life. Is the ending perfect? No, and for what it’s worth, I prefer the comic book’s ending, which isn’t nearly as rushed as the movie’s — though, in Wright’s defense, O’Malley was still writing the ending even as the movie was being made. But the movie provides a pretty solid refutation of Scott’s behavior with regards to Ramona, Knives, et al., such that the above criticism doesn’t hold much weight for me.
I first encountered Scott Pilgrim’s precious little life when my friend Todd recommended the first two volumes to me back in 2004. I knew it was something special the first time that subspace bypass through Scott’s brain was mentioned and when Scott duked it out with Matthew Patel, I was hooked by its sheer awesomeness. Suffice to say, when I found out that a movie adaptation was in the works, I was immediately nervous. Would Hollywood attempt to treat it like yet another one of the myriad of comic book adaptations that have been released in the last five years or so? Or would they respect its madcap mashup nature. The announcement of Edgar Wright as director ameliorated my concerns a fair amount, and the movie has borne that out.
Wright has concocted a very potent pop culture brew with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It’s not without its weaknesses, and some of its weaknesses are, in hindsight, rather glaring. And it’ll be dismissed by many as style over substance without ever realizing that the style is the substance. All told, I found it to be a delightfully uneven movie that at its best moments fills the screen with an energy, enthusiasm, and élan like few movies, Hollywood or otherwise, in recent memory.
This review was originally published on Filmwell on August 22, 2010.