Edgar Wright is one of the most dynamic and inventive young directors on the planet today. He cut his teeth on the English sitcom Spaced, which was co-written by the show’s leads, Simon Pegg & Jessica Hynes. It featured a dazzling array of visual quirks, including whip pans, frantic montages, meta dream sequences, and constant nods to tentpoles of nerd culture. The hilarious “male telepathy” scene from Season 2 lays a foundation for what Wright would attempt in his feature film career, culminating in this under-appreciated gem of a film.
Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it.
Like Brad Bird, Wright has also only made four features. The first was Shaun of the Dead (also featuring Pegg & Nick Frost from Spaced), which is a loving homage to the zombie films of George Romero–on the surface. Wright excels at using genre conventions as simply window dressing for a great story, and Shaun is essentially a very good romantic comedy that happens to have zombies in it. Wright, Pegg & Frost would continue with Hot Fuzz, which tackles the visual language (and cliches) of the “buddy cop” action flick with impressive dexterity–while also being very, very funny.
Having demonstrated his skill at kinetic action sequences and shotgun-blast exposition, Wright was the ideal choice to adapt the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. I had never heard of them when this project was announced, but I knew that if Wright was involved, I’d be there. He rounded up a pitch-perfect cast, starting with Michael Cera as the titular Scott. Cera had been trying to break out of the wishy-washy, earnest mold set for him during his breakout run on Arrested Development, and while Pilgrim doesn’t stray too far from that persona, it does give him some new colors to play with.
Scott is a 24-year-old musician, in a mediocre band called Sex Bob-omb (this film does for video games what Shaun did for zombies), who decides to dump the high-schooler he’s dating when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party. However, what he doesn’t know is that Ramona has left a long trail of broken hearts in her wake, and her “Seven Evil Exes” have banded together to destroy Scott in a series of one-on-one fights. The film quickly takes a turn for the surreal when the first Evil Ex literally flies on stage singing a Bollywood-esque number before punching Scott with a dramatic “KA-POWWW,” and it doesn’t let up from there.
What sets Scott Pilgrim apart is its unique visual style. Wright uses every trick he deployed in Spaced and then some: voiceovers, text, animations, video game-like “cutscenes,” all on top of his usual warp-speed editing. If it sounds exhausting, it really isn’t, because Wright also chooses the right moments for the film to take a breath before diving back into the insanity.
The rest of the cast is totally game: Brandon Routh and Chris Evans (known better as Superman and Captain America) play two of the Exes to obnoxious perfection. Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill (The Newsroom), Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation), Brie Larson, Mae Whitman (Arrested Development, reuniting with Cera), and more also play their parts to the hilt, rounding out a seriously impressive ensemble cast.
This film particularly speaks to my generation, not just by the constant reference humor, but by capturing the essence of how it feels to be a millennial. Scott by turns is arrogant, charming, and completely insecure, capable of making the right decisions but at first not being given enough of a reason to do so. His “quest” to win Ramona’s heart is recognizable to all young people, the perfect blend of “Hero’s Journey” mythology and bittersweet realism, made all the more effective by Scott himself being a deeply flawed character–he just earns literal points (presented in a helpful onscreen graphic) after each fight.
I showed this film to a friend of mine right after it came out on Blu ray, and while he was blown away by the visuals and completely enjoyed the geekier cues (the use of Legend of Zelda music on two separate occasions is particularly winning), he turned to me when it was over and said “I don’t know…this is basically my life.” The melancholy hit a little too close to home.
I guess when you’ve played enough video games, you start to approach the real world like one. There’s always a new object to find, a princess to rescue, a boss to battle, and upgrades to earn. But gaming is a solo exercise, and Scott eventually realizes that the world doesn’t revolve around him–he just has to take a few punches and break a few guitars to get there. Hopefully it’ll be easier for the rest of us.