Reelin’ & Rockin’ – ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ vs. the Common Coming of Age Story

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Among the filmmakers who could helm an adaptation of the phone book and still maintain my interest is Edgar Wright. With only 4 films to his credit, Wright has proven himself to be as witty with the camera as he is with the pen. Wright has only made one film outside of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. An adaptation of the comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim encapsulates the feel of reading a comic book, playing a video game, and listening or playing rock ‘n’ roll music.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is 22 years old, unemployed, and a bassist for Sex Bob-omb, a garage band. He’s recently entered into a relationship with a high school girl, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to the chagrin of his bandmates, Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill). One night at a party, Scott encounters the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Still in a relationship with Knives, Scott pursues Ramona despite the objections of his gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and his gossipy sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick). While playing at a battle of the bands, Scott is assaulted by Mathew Patel (Satya Bhabha), the first of Ramona’s 7 evil ex-boyfriends, In order to win the affections of Ramona, Scott must battle the League of Evil Exes. There’s Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), a pro-skater turned actor; Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), boyfriend of Scott’s ex, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), and bassist for The Clash at Demonhead; Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), from Ramona’s sexy lesbian phase; the Katayanagi Twins (Keita Saitou and Shôta Saitô), an electronic music duo, and Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a club and record label owner, tastemaker, and founder of the League of Evil Exes.

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Upon its release, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was a flop. It opened 5th at the box office in its first week, behind Inception which was in its 5th week in release. The rumblings as to why the film failed to catch on at the box office vary from whether Universal showed it to too many people at Comic-Con to whether its audience was split with The Expendables opening that same weekend.  I don’t put much stock into either of those theories. What I do know is that the film was likely difficult to market. I distinctly recall when I first saw the trailer a friend remarking, “That’s either gonna be really good or really bad.” We now know it’s the former. I’m sure my friends can remember how ecstatic I was after seeing the film, telling everyone I knew that it was a rip-roaring good time at the movies. Though it underperformed, it has built a dedicated cult following. The New Beverly Cinema (the best theater in L.A.) does regular midnight showings of the film. Much in the same manner that The Big Lebowski was a flop, Scott Pilgrim proves that a well-made, interesting film will outlast a soulless financial success, you know, like The Expendables.

Even with only 4 film credits to his name, Edgar Wright has carved out the status as a truly great filmmaker. He does this because he knows how to use cinematic form as a joke on top of the witty banter and sly comedic performances. Nearly every edit in Scott Pilgrim is awe inspiring, and many of his transitions are inspired by Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise – namely the point-of-view sequence when the Phantom comes into being – but you can also see more of De Palma’s influence with the varied uses of split-screen shots. Wright’s script, co-written with Michael Bacall, who also worked on 21 and 22 Jump Street, captures the feel of O’Malley’s comics, making changes when necessary to make a better film. Often fans of comics and books want purity in their film adaptations, but more often a strict adherence to another medium’s form leaves a film feeling out of place. It is a difficult balancing act which Bacall and Wright perform admirably.

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Mjolnir ain’t got nothin’ on that hammer!

The film’s cast is as impressive as its soundtrack. Easily Cera’s best starring film role, it even features a mini Arrested Development reunion when Cera has to fight Mae Whitman (Her?). The film features breakout performances from Alison Pill, who had a memorable role in Snowpiercer this year as well as her role as Zelda Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Brie Larson, who was great in 21 Jump Street and Short Term 12. Also featuring Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick as they were on the cusp of stardom. Wright was even able to corral Captain America (Evans), Superman (Routh), and the Punisher (Tom Jane in a cameo). The soundtrack features songs by Frank Black, T-Rex, and the Black Lips, as well as Beck writing all the original music for Sex Bob-omb.

A common critique leveled against the film is that Scott isn’t that likeable of a character. While not completely dismissing that argument, it kinda misses the point. A 22-year-old makes poor decisions with relationships. Sometimes they seek out relationships that could be destructive and rooted in selfishness. It can be hard to be sympathetic for these decisions, but the film and its characters are constantly making Scott confront these decisions. The same goes for Ramona, whose past decisions led to the forming of the League of Evil Exes. Maybe I’m forgiving because I feel a kinship with Scott, having been a 22-year-old idiot playing in a garage band and making exclusively bad relationship decisions.

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Scott Pilgrim is also adept at understanding the incestuous nature of scenes, where relationships are intertwined through various degrees of separation. It also understands that in those same scenes there’s an ambition that can turn into resentment when a certain group raises to a level of success that the others aspire to. And in a brief but memorable gag involving the Vegan Police, the film presents an understanding of how those with alternative dietary habits have an aura of superiority about them. Where there are a number of works that aim to understand the nuances of the modern underground, Scott Pilgrim isn’t a poser.

Like Wright’s other films, Scott Pilgrim has a kinetic energy that drives the film forward, yet it’s entirely different than any of the films in the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s a singular work that borrows the aesthetics of comics, anime, and video games with a rock ‘n’ roll heart that understands the follies of youth. Wright’s use of cinema styles and verbal wit illustrates that we’re all poorer for the internal conflicts that led to his departure from Ant-Man. While not Wright’s best film – I’d say The World’s End is – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World balances style and substance in a way that few filmmakers could. It’s a fun movie. I’m in lesbians with it.

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