The romantic action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like nothing — and if you’re a person between the age of approximately 18 to 35 everything — you’ve seen before. British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel is so densely laden with pop-culture references it often times feels less like a movie than a mixtape. Those who share the tastes of the film’s 31-year-old writer and 35-year-old director will find the experience to be exhilarating; those who don’t however will likely be at a loss to comprehend what all the fuss is about.
The list of ‘80s and ‘90s video game nods in Pilgrim alone is daunting: Tekken Super Mario Bros. Tetris Zelda and even retro titles like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are represented just to name a few. To fit all of it in Wright must practically invent a brand-new kind of filmmaking. Using techniques and iconography culled from the holy fanboy triumvirate of comic books video games and anime/manga and armed with a clearly generous effects budget he splatters the screen with a dazzling array of CGI visual aids as the action unfolds: informational pop-ups supply key details on each character as they are introduced; words like “Boom!” and “Pow!” burst forth when blows are landed during fight sequences; a “Level Up!” graphic indicating increased levels of key character attributes appears after the film’s hero triumphs in battle. Even the old Universal Studios logo has been revamped by Wright rendered in the rudimentary graphics and sound of the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Call it easter-egg filmmaking.
At the center of this digital maelstrom is Scott Pilgrim a 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif played by 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif Michael Cera. Unemployed and in no great rush to find work he splits his time evenly between jamming with his middling band Sex Bob-Omb (a Super Mario Bros. reference) combing thrift shops for new additions to his near-limitless collection of ironic t-shirts and pining for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a beguiling New York City emigre whose signature attribute is her constantly-changing hair color.
After a few abortive encounters Scott finally gets Ramona to reciprocate his affections. Thus begins the quest — or "campaign " as gamers call it — portion of the film as Scott soon discovers that in order to secure Ramona’s hand he must defeat each of her seven evil exes (six boys and one girl) in spontaneous death matches of decreasing novelty. (A few of them could easily have been excised without harming the narrative but that might invite the ire of comic book fans who typically demand nothing less than absolute adherence to the source text.) With a variety of found power-ups and an entirely implausible collection of fancy kung-fu moves he faces off against among others a pompous vegan straight-edge (Brandon Routh) a self-absorbed action star (Chris Evans) a spiteful lesbian (Mae Whitman) and a smarmy record producer (Jason Schwartzman).
I expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will polarize audiences and not just because of Wright’s distinctively dizzying directorial style. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it occasionally overdoses on manufactured quirk and is a bit too proud of its cleverness.) The film glosses over Scott and Ramona’s wooing process in its rush to commence with its succession of comic-book battles which grow somewhat tedious toward the end. It’s simply assumed that Ramona would fall for our protagonist as it’s likewise assumed that we already have. But not everyone will embrace Scott’s castrati hipster affect which too often comes across as grating rather than charming. (The movie’s funniest moments come courtesy of Scott’s sassy gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin who is never without a clever barb for his lovelorn pal.) And beneath Cera’s self-effacing sheen exists an unmistakable whiff of pretentiousness that isn’t entirely justified — at least not yet. Far less debatable is the appeal of Winstead whose spunky Ramona appears every bit worth the hassle of fending off seven or more ex-lovers.
God knows what she sees in him.
A biker and skateboarder challenge each other at the beginning of the film leaping off the roof of a house down a slide and into an unfinished pool. The biker who ends up crashing through a big bay window turns out to be a girl Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) who walked out of the World Champion Gymnastics competition a few years back for some mysterious reason. When she's arrested for the vandalism a kind judge (Polly Holliday) sends her to a tough gymnastics camp run by Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges). There she faces competition by a former foe Joanne (Vanessa Lengies) and befriends gymnasts Wei-Wei (Nikki SooHoo) and Mina (Maddy Curley). As they start winning competitions as a team Haley discovers that the judging isn't always equitable and she works out a scheme to shine a light on the arbitrary unfairness by essentially telling them to "stick it." The girls in the cast you've probably seen on TV shows if you have anyone in your house who's a pre-teen. Lengies was on Popular Mechanics for Kids; others have been on Nickelodeon shows and some real-life Olympic medalists such as Carly Patterson Nastia Liukin Elfi Schlegel and Bart Conner (Nadia Comaneci's husband) all play themselves in Stick It. Haley's two best friends are guys Frank (Kellan Lutz) and Poot (John Patrick Amedori) who play some pretty goofy sidekicks--and they've got a completely platonic relationship with Haley. Peregrym in the lead role is a surprising stand-out actress who comes across as a more pouty taller Hilary Swank. Her scenes with Bridges as her coach are reminiscent of the tender but sometimes creepy moments between Swank and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. Director/writer Jessica Bendinger shows a subtle finesse in her first feature. From the impressively colorful graffiti-style credits to the moments of fast-motion speed-ups and overlapped synchronized events she is able to keep the pace going in what is potentially a bore to anyone who isn't into watching gymnastics. Previously Bendinger scripted the surprising cheerleader hit Bring it On and the recent charming mermaid romance Aquamarine. But Stick It is also quite predictable. It doesn't have the delightful unpredictable twists of Bring it On or the warm fuzzy teen girl feel of Aquamarine. Yet she's able to tell a good inspirational story for a young audience even if it is burdened with bad puns and lines like "I have a Constitutional right to 'bare' arms" and "Who died and made you Nadia?" And of course with the guys there are a few fart jokes too.