An example of attention-deficit filmmaking at both its finest and its most frustrating, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” blends the styles of videogames, sitcoms and comicbooks for a mostly hollow, high-energy riff on the insecurities of young love. With Michael Cera in the title role, twentysomethings and under will swiftly embrace this original romancer, which treats the subject as if there were nothing more important in all the universe, though anyone over 25 is likely to find director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the cult graphic novel exhausting, like playing chaperone at a party full of oversexed college kids.
In semi-square Toronto, 22-year-old indie rocker Scott (Cera) is dating high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) when he spies the hipster chick of his dreams, fuchsia-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But before the two can sail off into the sunset, he’ll have to cut things off with Knives and defeat Ramona’s seven “evil exes” (a motley bunch of former beaus, ranging from superstud Chris Evans to a weaselly Jason Schwartzman) in a series of “Mortal Kombat”-style death matches — not so simple for a slacker with the spine of a dandelion.
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Whereas creator Bryan Lee O’Malley spread the story over a six-volume graphic novel, Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall choose to focus on the fighting, cutting short the series’ observational genius in favor of “Kill Bill”-esque confrontations (though Quentin Tarantino gave himself four hours in which to dispatch five people). Unfortunately, Scott hardly has time to be smitten before he’s smiting Ramona’s exes, and if he must be seeing stars, it’d be nice if she (not her kung fu-savvy old flames) were the reason.
Still, “Scott Pilgrim” is a feat of economical storytelling, rendered in the vernacular of small talk and text messages. For a young man with no job and limited ambition, Scott leads an unusually drama-filled life, and Wright innovatively uses split screens, sleight-of-hand editing and onscreen narration to help cover considerable ground in limited time, while leaving room for half a dozen big action setpieces. As ensembles go, the pic packs one of the most crowded lineups in teen-movie memory, with Scott fending off input from his sister (Anna Kendrick), gay roommate (Kieran Culkin), fellow band members (Mark Webber, Alison Pill and Johnny Simmons) and his own league of exes (most notably Brie Larson, as the girl who “kicked his heart in the ass”).
The fact that we can keep all these characters straight while intuitively following the movie’s unique vidgame logic is a testament to Wright’s never-dull directorial skills. That said, Cera makes it hard to care; while his comic timing is impeccable, he’s finally played the wilty wallflower one too many times. Watching Culkin steal every scene he’s in, it’s hard not to wonder how much less predictable he — or any number of non-wet-noodle alternatives — might have been in Scott’s shoes.
Scott may not seem worthy of either Ramona or all the attention their relationship attracts, but Wright invests the world with an infectious energy that’s hard to resist, even if the whole affair makes “Twilight” (or Trapper Keeper poetry) seem profound by comparison. Watching “Scott Pilgrim” is the cinematic equivalent of dating a high school student, as the film depicts a world in which boredom is the gravest possible offense. But there are different kinds of boredom, and Wright’s whimsical flourishes (reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” adaptation) can’t trump the ennui that accompanies a story whose life experience cuts off at drinking age.
Style, then, becomes the level at which we must appreciate Wright’s work. His choices are clever enough, from the 8-bit Universal logo that opens the film to a laugh track-backed, “Seinfeld”-scored domestic scene, though such creative cartwheels draw our attention away from the character stuff that is the movie’s strength. Music (from such alt-rock stars as Beck, Metric and Plumtree) helps smooth the breakneck transitions and reps the pic’s next biggest focus, after the not-unimpressive mano-a-mano showdowns. What’s missing is the quality time that would make us feel Scott and Ramona might be suitably matched to take on the world together.