As this summer season has repeatedly proven, some movies produce odd, unexpected, and often deeply polarizing reviews. But while it's certainly the onus of any critic to protect his or her integrity and defend that reaction, there are some of these movies whose reviews I'd argue are really just kind of wrong, while others, no matter how extreme or opposite, are probably all equally right. And Scott Pilgrim vs. The World decidedly falls into the latter category.
Although the film is a glorious celebration of video games, a sweet little twentysomething romance, and at its most intimate, a subtle and smart coming of age story, Edgar Wright's adaptation of the beloved graphic novel series of the same name is going to generate as many pans as it does praise, primarily because some viewers may feel it cuts out a deeper emotional connection in the service of rendering some of the most razor-sharp pop-cultural specificity in recent memory. But even though I can't help but pre-emptively understand if some of my colleagues argue that it's too generationally narrow or even attention-deficient to leave a lasting impression, I really, really liked Scott Pilgrim, and think that it's one of the most technically astounding and yet personally resonant movies of the year.
Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a dubiously-employed 22-year-old who entertains rock star fantasies as the bassist of The Sex Bob-omb and entertains a fun if frivolous relationship with an underage girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). After a dream mysteriously introduces Scott to Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he devotes every moment of his waking life to meeting her for real, and manages to begin a furtive romance with her even though he can barely bring himself to break it off with Knives. But after a series of Ramona's exes pay the lovesick bassist a visit promising to kill him unless he leaves her alone, Scott is forced to fight for the woman he loves, and just maybe learn a little something about himself in the process.
As far as deadpan hipster comedies are concerned, Scott Pilgrim is the Godfather of the genre – a massive, sprawling epic that builds and builds while offering just enough ironic asides to make fully sure that no one involved is taking themselves too seriously. And indeed, Michael Cera has played a variation of this character before – several of them, in fact – and he sometimes fails to provide the resilience and indefatigable determination (instead contributing his trademarked Charlie Brown-style feckless optimism) that Scott needs to see his romance with Ramona through to the end.
But what's most surprising is how the movie sneaks up on you, and how it seems to know that these are its shortcomings, particularly at the beginning of the story. That I was initially bored by his dating life with Knives feels intentional in the context of the film's ending, and that he is sort of infuriatingly inactive becomes an integral part not only of the character but his eventual journey, both physical and emotional, as he navigates adversaries and obstacles of both varieties.
Cinematically, director Edgar Wright continues to grow by leaps and bounds with each film, and here his mastery of technique pioneered by others finally and firmly becomes its own style. Although he uses filmmaking forebear Sam Raimi's director of photography, Bill Pope, their work together resembles the source material from which they borrowed inspiration – including video games, action movies, and of course, comic books – rather than The Evil Dead or any other movie, for that matter. The action sequences are exhilarating, inventive, and best of all, based directly in the characters that are clashing with one another, and Wright juggles the physical, emotional and the cinematic elements of these scenes effortlessly.
That said, Wright's breakneck editing and pacing makes Michael Bay look positively pastoral by comparison, and it's probably here where Scott Pilgrim may suffer from many of its most passionate criticisms. I was certainly never lost in the filmmaking flourishes, even when Wright would cut breezily through several locations over the course of a single conversation, or chop up the action into bits so fine they looked almost like the ones and zeroes that provided the animators with their raw materials. But this is resolutely a film for a generation of moviegoers that is acclimated to music video-era storytelling, one less interested in formalism (much less classicism) than the sum total of a scene's emotional weight or energy, and it may turn off folks who want something that's subtler, more reflective, or even just a little slower.
It's because of Wright's virtuoso control of this technique that he may be the best young filmmaker of his generation; while he can deconstruct and reinvent action conventions in the blink of an eye, he also pays close attention to each scene's payoff, and foregoes flourishes that are purely visual or visceral. The problem is, of course, that he's so style-heavy as a director that his work seems completely unrestrained, but that style is employed so judiciously that it never feels self-indulgent or unwarranted. And even more surprisingly, he uses it as both a realization of and disguise for the core of the story, so that when Scott comes to his final realization it plays like a genuine epiphany, and forces the audience to reflect upon the film as not only attempting but executing something more substantive than a cinematic video game where the stakes begin and end with the affection of his dream girl.
Again, however, this film isn't going to be for everybody, and no matter what their reasons may be on paper, it won't just come down to them being "out of touch." Evidenced by this adaptation, the Scott Pilgrim comic book is itself a sweet-spot of wish-fulfillment, real insight and pure fun, and the convergence of those elements in this way for a generation who responds to the source material is something that isn't going to connect with everyone. It doesn't need to, and in some ways, it probably shouldn't.
In which case, generational markers are often as important as they are overlooked, and not unlike a Blade Runner or Bonnie and Clyde, this seems destined to be a film whose impact is measured in years rather than weekends to come, and with more analysis than a casual, convenient dismissal, or even an immediate, balls-out proclamation of its greatness. (In the meantime, it seems destined to spawn imitators and launch filmmaking careers left and right, not to mention provide a theme or point of would-be inspiration for plenty of real-life romances.) But even without an immediate connection to its light speed sensibility or the pop culture benchmarks it both celebrates and satirizes, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an ambitious, one-of-a-kind, fully-realized, smart, sensitive and satisfying work of cinema – and one so confident in its execution that being hated by some is scarcely more than another battle en route to really being loved.