Geek love

Pub date August 10, 2010
WriterSam Stander
SectionFilm Review

FILM For fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s just-completed comics saga Scott Pilgrim, the announcement that Edgar Wright (2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz) would direct a film version was utterly surreal. Geeks get promises like this all the time, all too often empty (Guillermo del Toro’s Hobbit, anyone?). But miraculously, Wright indeed spent the past five years crafting the winning and astoundingly faithful (if slightly divergent plot-wise) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The film follows hapless Toronto 20-something Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), bassist for crappy band Sex Bob-omb, as he falls for delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), only to find he must defeat her seven evil exes — like so many videogame bosses — before he can comfortably date her. As it happens, he’s already dating a high-schooler, Knives (Ellen Wong), who’s not coping well with Scott moving on.

To address a primary concern up front, Cera plays a good feckless twerp. His performance isn’t groundbreaking, but it dodges the Cera-playing-his-precious-self phenomenon so many have lamented. Scott is the protagonist, surely, but he’s not exactly a hero. He’s a puny human, which makes his (mostly) unstoppable fighting technique all the more impressive. He’s battling larger-than-life foes imbued with real-life superpowers like self-confidence and cultural cache. The film’s ensemble cast maintains a sardonic tone, with excellent turns by Alison Pill, Aubrey Plaza, and newcomer Wong. Jason Schwartzman is perfectly cast as the ultimate evil ex-boyfriend, hipster asshole Gideon Graves — there’s really no one slimier, at least under 35.

Some of Pilgrim‘s characters operate on winking stereotypes, most notably the pronouncedly Chinese Knives and Scott’s “totally gay” roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin). The comics’ light gags can seem a tad tasteless when applied to “real” people. But for all Wallace’s comically exaggerated promiscuity, hetero Scott cheats on his partner in a truly reprehensible manner. Says Wright, speaking over the phone, “We tried, in terms of the gay characters in the film to kind of, in hopefully a progressive way, not make a big deal about it.”

The film brilliantly cops the comics’ visual language, including snarky captions and onomatopoetic sound effects, reminiscent onscreen of 1960s TV Batman. Sometimes this tends toward sensory overload, but it’s all so stylistically distinctive and appropriate that excess is easily forgiven. “It wasn’t a film where we had to strive for absolute realism like [2008’s] The Dark Knight,” Wright explains. “We had a chance to embrace the bubblegum, Pop art nature of the artwork.”

All the action in the movie is videogame-derived, with pixel-drenched effects and 8-bit bleats galore; call it the film’s mise-en-Sega. It’s hard to think of another movie that has hewed this aesthetically close to videogames as a form — maybe Tron (1982) — since game-to-film adaptations often try to mine the source material for other genre signifiers. Besides comics and games, Pilgrim finds a third frame of reference in indie rock. The characters’ bands seem like riffs on certain Canadian acts, but Wright says they’re more “a mélange of bands that [O’Malley] played with when he was in a band himself.” Among the contributors to the diegetic soundtrack are Broken Social Scene, Metric, and Beck, who are, as Wright says, “playing a part rather than playing themselves.”

If Pilgrim is a hit, steel yourself for a whole wave of candy-coated imitators. But for now, revel in the fact that we have a film that so intuitively understands its characters and its audience. It’s a killer action film, a charming rom-com, and a weirdo cult rock movie all rolled into one. As the back cover of the first volume of the comic reads, “This is Scott Pilgrim. This is your life.”

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

MORE AT SFBG.COM Pixel Vision blog: Sam Stander’s complete Edgar Wright interview.