Writers: Michael Bacall & Wright (screenplay), Bryan Lee O’Malley (graphic novels)
Cinematographer: Bill Pope
Starring: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Jason Schwartzman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Scott Pilgrim’s Pointless Little Life
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is more like a videogame than any of the many big-screen adaptations of game franchises. By which I mean that it’s more akin to watching a videogame than actually playing one—this adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s superb graphic novel series is paced, shot and structured like a grab-bag of ‘90s pop-culture errata, anime and Sega Genesis games. It’s a loving treatment of the source material, which is why it makes for a total headache of a film. It’s not that comic books don’t translate well to movies, it’s that this particular comic book is so steeped in its own lore and in-jokes that a two-hour film adaptation leaves little room for you to do anything but marvel at a blitzkrieg of slick editing and frenetic action.
Michael Cera doesn’t disappoint as the titular bass-slinging, perpetually unemployed twentysomething rocker; the latest incarnation of his furrowed-brow, Mona Lisa smile schtick is so practiced it’s damn near Stanislavskian. He falls for the über-deadpan hipster Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and soon has to confront a posse of her seven evil exes to win her heart, all according to some never-fully-explained variant on the damsel in distress. The pair have next to no chemistry, romantic or otherwise, so most of the performance slack falls on some truly inspired bit parts—Kieran Culkin is fantastic as Scott’s sardonic lothario roommate, and Chris Evans’ bro-tastic, skateboard-toting evil ex is pitch-perfect.
There are plenty of visual distractions from the ho-hum characters: the film crackles with ultra-bright CGI, primary-color flourishes and sound effects rendered literally (“Thonk!” “Pow!”) exploding on every square inch of the screen. It makes for bleeding-edge visual filmmaking—Wright has a keen eye for translating hyperkinetic Street Fighter brawls into a breakneck, blink-and-you’ll miss yarn. But Scott Pilgrim’s failings have more to do with heart than craft. The film’s plot and character development play out quite literally like a Final Fantasy dungeon crawl—right down to the itemized level-ups, boss fights, and ultra-taut pacing—a high-tension sugar rush that never lets down. It’s impossible to care about any the characters when the circumference of their personalities is a jumbled mess of pop-culture references; doubly so when the next larger-than-life clash is, inevitably, only 10 minutes away.
With a different pairing of lead actors, Scott Pilgrim could have been stellar. The film is, at heart, about dealing with the baggage that every couple brings to a relationship—but the romance in question doesn’t even try be endearing or relatable. Rather, every line is delivered one step ahead of the audience, with too-caustic wit and an ain’t-I-a-stinker smirk. Like the special effects, the characters are sketched out in tiresome cinematic shorthand, as if to reassure the viewer that this joyride really isn’t worth thinking too hard about. Which is fine, but it turns what could have been a cinematic feat into a popcorn flick.