Just as there are some amusement park attractions that require riders to be a certain minimum height, there are movies that probably ought to be restricted to viewers below a certain age—at least mentally, if not in actual years. “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” a hyperactive cross between a comic book and a video game, is a prime candidate. Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels is certainly all of a piece, successfully translating the peculiar sensibility of its source into cinematic terms—a dazzling exhibition that evokes the panels of a comic but puts them into excited motion. But unless you’re tuned into that particular storytelling mode, it’s likely to be as palatable to you as an endless diet of cotton candy.
Basically “Pilgrim” is a glitzy fantasy about the vicissitudes of romance among the twentysomething set, told in a wild visual shorthand that rarely pauses to catch its breath. Scott (Michael Cera, doing his geeky routine for the umpteenth time) is a shaggy slacker, rooming with ostentatiously gay Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who divides his time between jamming with his bandmates (Stephen Sills, Alison Pill and Johnny Simmons) and chumming around with gleeful high-school student Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who’s gaga over their rehearsals. But when he spies Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a flaming-haired chick with a superior air, at a party, he’s immediately smitten. Of course, he’ll have to dump Knives, something he doesn’t really have the backbone to do. But even more importantly, to win Ramona he’s required to defeat her “seven evil ex-es” in mortal combat—an even more challenging task.
And so sandwiched between scenes pitting Scott against his imperious sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), Wallace, Pill’s Kim (an ex-girlfriend as well as the band’s drummer), and Julie (Aubrey Plaza), a tart-tongued thing who flays him verbally, are the various battle scenes, all staged with comic-book pizzazz, from the neon-colored graphics to the special effects and the “Bang! Pow! Zowie!” overlay of exclamations written strategically on the screen. (The use of such text bubbles isn’t restricted to the action moments: every time a phone goes off “rings” fill the air, too. And another graphic is no less than a “pee meter” that shows the yellow decreasing every time Scott hits the john. In fact, fans can probably play one of those drinking games, chugging every time he says, “I’ve got to pee.”)
Of the seven combat episodes, all are very stylishly rendered, but several stand out. One features Chris Evans as Lucas Lee, an action-movie stud whom Scott confronts on the set of his latest movie, only to discover he has to deal with all his stunt doubles too, and whom he dispatches by playing on his he-man vanity. Another has erstwhile Superman Brandon Routh as Todd, a boneheaded rocker who’s part of the band of Pilgrim’s ex-girlfriend, megastar Envy Adams (Brie Larson); he’s endowed with the special powers that come from a vegan diet. And then there’s the final stand-off against Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a slimy music promoter who steals Ramona back.
You have to admire the visual invention Wright has poured into the movie, even in the opening titles. There are lovely sequences of walks through the empty, snow-covered Toronto streets and one faux sitcom scene, complete with laughtrack, to accompany all the high-velocity dialogue scenes, sight gags and spectacular action set-pieces. What’s missing is anything beneath the eye-catching surface. Even a picture like “500 Days of Summer,” which also put a hip modern spin on how romance doesn’t run smoothly, had some heart. “Scott Pilgrim” is too cool for that—or at least thinks it is. Its attitude is relentlessly smug and superior, and as a result while you have to admire the craftsmanship, in the end its effect is ephemeral.
You can also admire the way the cast embrace the caricatures they play—all cartoon figures, of course, but at least vivid in the hands of this bunch. Even if you find Cera and Winstead less than adorable—which they definitely are—there’s always the likes of Culkin, Kendrick, Pill and Simmons to look forward to. And however devoid of meaning the movie might be, you have to give credit to the guys responsible for its look, from cinematographer Bill Pope, production designer Marcus Rowland and art director Nigel Churcher down to the lowest visual-effects manipulator. Editors Jonathan Ames and Paul Machlias must also be recognized for managing to keep things relatively clear in a sea of quick cuts and overlaps.
But ultimately “Scott Pilgrim” has been fashioned as an instant cult movie, and while it certainly succeeds on that level and members of the cult will embrace it for that very reason, the uninitiated—though impressed by its style—will probably be more exhausted than delighted.