The first time I read Scott Pilgrim, one of my single line sells when recommending it to friends was “It’s like a manga version of Spaced.” And clearly, I wasn’t the only person who saw similarities between Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel and the Edgar Wright-directed sitcom about 20-something slackers who filter the world through pop culture. Because it wasn’t long before Wright was attached to the film version, which, years of gruelling anticipation aside, brings us to now.
The film sees the eponymous hero (Michael Cera) attempting to form a relationship with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an Amazon delivery girl with the unusual quirk of jumping through subspace doorways. But there’s one huge obstacle to their tentative relationship: before they can date properly, Scott must fight and defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes.
What follows is, in Wright’s terms, a musical, but with fighting instead of singing. Think Mamma Mia, except with Pierce Brosnan getting punched in the face (as if you needed to be prompted to do that).
Steeped in the language of videogames, manga and anime, the film moves at an astonishing pace, boasting a razor-sharp, highly quotable script. Effects adorn every other scene, whether rendering simple comic book sound effects drifting in and out of a frame, or astonishing, super-powered swordfights.
The cast, universally young and attractive, is an utter gold mine of up-and-coming talent, and there’s not a poor choice amongst them.
Witness Routh’s unexpected gift for comedy. Marvel at Winstead’s mastery of deadpan. Yield to Wong’s super-enthusiastic portrayal of Knives Chau (17 years old). Even Cera, whom many suspected would revert to mumbling nerdy type, offers a wide-eyed and earnest portrayal of the lead, with only the occasional mumble. There simply isn’t a duff player amongst them.
Throughout the film, Wright positively revels in his ability to translate the hyperkinetic energy of the source material to the screen. It’s gratifying that a book with such a strong visual identity should be given to a director who actively immerses himself in the full range of tricks and techniques available to filmmakers. In Scott Pilgrim, he seems to take his dedication to the form almost to another level.
It might not be his first film, but freed from the need to service the comic timing of his once and future collaborator, Simon Pegg, it finally feels as though Wright can do everything he always wanted to, and that means that he hasn’t just made a film, he’s created a visual textbook on filmmaking.
As you might expect from a film about a guy in a band, the soundtrack plays a major part in both setting the tone and telling the story.
Admittedly, it’s rare you see a film and leave thinking that the soundtrack was completely superfluous, but with so much of the script based on music, Scott Pilgrim leaves you hanging on every note. By the time you leave the cinema, you’ll feel less like you’ve watched a film and more like you’ve just witnessed a set by your favourite band, which, in some cases, might actually be true, as the film’s teenage bands were all assigned real-life counterparts in Metric (Clash at Demonhead), Broken Social Scene (Crash and the Boys) and Beck (Sex Bob-Omb).
If there’s any major problem, it’s that Scott Pilgrim‘s frame of reference sometimes seems self-consciously narrow. As a member of the target audience of game and comic obsessed 20-something geeks, it’s easy to forget that the appeal might not translate outside that section of the population.
Even with the nerdiest lines from the book exorcised, the movie is thick with the language of 8- and 16-bit videogames, and if you hold no specific fondness for the period and technology represented, it’s hard to believe that the film will work as well. That is its greatest strength and its greatest limitation.
For a series that was sometimes called “Harry Potter for hipsters”, it’s also hard not to wish that there was a way to follow the lead of the bespectacled one and do a series of films, in order to really do the plot of the books justice.
With so much crammed into one film, the characters and their relationships become unavoidably superficial, and the constraints of fitting seven or eight fights into two hours means that there are times when all good sense demands a break from the action, but there simply isn’t time for one. The books take far more time to reach the same conclusions and emotional beats that the film rushes enthusiastically towards, and some moments fail purely because they aren’t given the time they’d need to succeed.
Still, the fact that the film exists at all is enough. Its youthful vibe and idiosyncratic subject matter guarantees it a long and celebrated life as a cult hit, to be discovered over and over again. With the box office returns looking comparatively abysmal, it’s some small consolation, but then, perhaps it’ll end up being the Pixies of cinema, reasonably popular in its day, but near-legendary beyond it.
And in a way, maybe that’s the most fitting fate for a film with such a debt to alternative pop culture – the chance to be accepted as a revered part of it.