British filmmaker Edgar Wright has made a habit of converting the shabby into the genial and inventive, as witnessed by his previous features, the deserving cult fave Shaun of the Dead, which turned the zombie flick into British social satire, and the lovably over-the-top buddy-cop comedy Hot Fuzz. But separated from Simon Pegg, his star and co-writer on those films, and working in the U.S., Wright can't repeat those charms on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a comic-book adaptation whose intentionally cheesy post-production effects and repetitive action scenes are instead merely clunky.
Based on a comic series from Bryan Lee O'Malley, the film follows romantically inept indie-rock bassist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, playing exactly to type) as he falls for terse, mysterious punk-rock chick Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the cheerleader-uni-clad ingénue from Quentin Tarantino's Death-Proof ) and has to win her hand by doing battle with her seven jealous exes (among them Jason Schwartzman and Chris Evans).
Though based on a comic, the true source material here is video games. Much of the humor of the film is predicated on a familiarity with video-game culture, and though I haven't owned a gaming system since the Atari 2600, the references here are broad enough that I didn't feel like I was missing anything, which may be part of the problem. A couple of good gaming jokes aside, the film seems more content to merely invoke recognition than mine video games for interesting ideas.
But the biggest problem here might be Cera. The eternal sunken-chested worrywart is not incapable of playing a romantic lead, as witnessed by his turns in Juno and especially the underrated Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, which seems to be something of a precursor to Scott Pilgrim, with both films depicting Cera as a dorky indie-rock bassist wooing a seemingly unattainable It Girl.
Nick and Nora is simply a better, truer film than Scott Pilgrim — sweet and funny and generational without striving as hard for connection. But one of the differences may be that Cera can pass for an awkward high-schooler pining for a cool girl who seems a little out of his league. Playing a twentysomething here, Cera's relationship with Winstead strains credibility. Ramona is more like Scott's big sister. And it doesn't help that Scott Pilgrim saddles Cera with a silly, distracting haircut that the film tries to turn into a recurring joke, as if Cera, bless him, needed extra help looking awkward.
The film's overstuffed cast is a mixed success. Coming off her young-adult Oscar turn in Up in the Air, Anna Kendrick looks very out of place as Cera's younger sister, but other members of Scott's galaxy of female companions shine: Alison Pill is a gas as the band's Moe Tucker-style drummer, and Ellen Wong gives a vibrant turn as the high-schooler sorta-girlfriend Scott meekly dumps in pursuit of Ramona.
Most films aimed at a niche market are able to appeal beyond the target audience if they're any good. But I can't imagine Scott Pilgrim vs. the World appealing to anyone but the teen and twentysomething gamers to which it panders, many of whom will want and deserve better.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Opening Friday, August 13th