Michael Cera assumes the role of geek king — one more time — in this surprisingly entertaining adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. Despite the mountain of potential cliche and deja-vu, Wright finds novel ground, thanks to a potent visual imagination, a complete understanding of the genre and a sincere heart that pushes through the veneer of cool.
Starring: Michael Cera, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
The world certainly did have an axe to grind with Scott Pilgrim — even before the first frames of this Edgar Wright movie hit the screen. It’s not a specific quibble; it’s a question of deja-vu.
For starters, did the world really need another movie featuring gangly Canadian nerd icon Michael Cera in an awkward romantic lead? Moreover, did we need another adaptation of a graphic novel that’s attained cult status? And really, are we so culturally bored that any film featuring a hip soundtrack and some clever video game-inspired special effects will have us drooling at the corners of our slack mouths?
Even though Ghost World came out close to a decade ago, and the pulp pages of comic books appeal to a decidedly niche market, Wright proves there’s still ample terrain to explore and exploit in the ink-stained genre with this reel that gets the tone spot on.
Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead, brings so much raw energy to this potentially tired mix that you have to surrender to the wackiness within the first act, because it’s delivered without irritating affectation.
Even Cera, who’s awfully close to parodying his own image, finds a way to transcend his own persona by reformulating his goofiness. He strips away the underlying sense of geek ennui, and, in turn, clears the way for his character to assume the dimensions of Greek myth.
Just in case you aren’t up on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s oeuvre, Scott Pilgrim is a modern character from modern times who shares a lot in common with Perseus, the demi-god of Greek legend.
He appears to be a complete mortal, and suffers the slings and arrows of failed romance, but Scott Pilgrim has a weird brand of super-strength that emerges whenever he’s forced to face off against his enemies.
In this case, those enemies are the seven evil exes who once courted his new girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Without any long, drawn-out explanation or primer in Hellenic narrative, Wright simply throws us in the tub of make-believe with an inflatable raft and lets us make the call: Do we want to go for this ride or not?
It’s an easy question to answer, because Wright decks out the screen with so much colour, such fun characters and so many great T-shirts, the mix is undeniably seductive.
Best of all, Wright recognizes his entire movie rests on the flimsy shoulders of wilful suspension of disbelief, but he makes no apologies for a single flight of fancy.
At one point, as Scott is sucked into yet another showdown with a former love, he looks to his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and asks: “You’re seeing this, right?”
Wallace responds with a deadpan remark and urges him to fight.
The result is a movie that seems to operate on two completely different levels at the same time. In one plane of experience, Scott Pilgrim is just an ordinary guy who plays bass in a basement band. On another plane, he’s Pilgrim, a righteous avenger who does battle with the forces from the underworld with all the combat aplomb of a video game-addicted teen.
Wright, borrowing from O’Malley, successfully fuses all the pop-culture references with bits and pieces of pagan myth, because he’s not obsessed with the logical weight of the story.
When Scott suddenly assumes the form of a Mortal Kombat-inspired avatar, Wright immediately changes the frame and the look of the film to match what we’re about to see. Even the opening corporate salvo of planet Earth turning in space has been recreated in crude pixel form to give us the right taste of time before the movie even begins.
When things are this zany, you have to surrender and giggle — which is a good place to enjoy obvious entertainments such as these. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this silly and satisfying mix was the fact Scott Pilgrim got to keep his Canadian passport for the voyage.
The graphic novel is a Canadian export, printed in Portland by Oni Press, but the production money behind this movie is largely American, thanks to Universal’s involvement. So are many of the stars, including the Oscar-nominated Anna Kendrick, who plays Scott’s sister, and Culkin, who keeps our logic-based inquiries at bay with declarative statements about the mutable nature of reality — and his attraction to men.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure there was enough novel ground left to tread in the world of offbeat comics and geek chic, but Wright proves genre cliche can be reinvented with imagination, self-awareness and enough courage to be sincere, when it might have been easier to slip into a cocoon of sarcasm.
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“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” debuted in wide release Friday, August 13, 2010