What if the path to true love worked like fighting your way through a video game? That was the premise of the peculiar graphic novel on which this film is based — a book which seems to be very popular with its target demographic, which is nerds. The result is... well, you can at least say of this movie that there’s nothing else like it. Opinions are bound to be divided on the result, but nobody will dispute its uniqueness. For myself? I quite dig it, but with a reservation or two.
What we have here is the story of what would be a completely ordinary young romance and slice-of-life, except it’s told in fantastical terms. At the start, the boy meets the girl when she skates through a hyperspatial tunnel that uses his subconscious mind as a shortcut. Naturally, when you do that, it makes an impression on a person. Scott Pilgrim, fascinated by this enigmatic and fascinating character, pursues her with a will, and finally they start to form a relationship. Aaaaaaand that’s when things really get weird.
Because that’s when life becomes a video game. Ramona (that’s her name) has seven exes, and for inexplicable reasons the universe suddenly imposes rules on the relationship: to win her love, he must battle each of the Seven Evil Exes. He must battle them in turn, in ridiculous cartoon fights. Fights that look like a blend of the worst excesses of anime with classic Popeye cartoons. And in the meantime Scott has to deal with basic challenges of everyday life, like getting a place of his own instead of crashing in an uncomfortably intimate shared pad, and pulling his weight in the punk band in which he plays bass. These battle scenes are completely nuts, and also highly original. Nothing like them has been put on film before. These scenes ask you to take video game conventions completely literally: for instance, when an opponent is beat up, he often turns into a pile of coins.
The band’s drummer is a secondary character named Kim Pine; as played by Allison Pill, she steals every scene. She’s just an all-too-typical sullen grumpy scowly post-teenager, and yet she’s twice as cool as the hero. Scott is also surrounded by several other odd characters who make good comedy material, and the enemies are often funniest of all. So as comedy, it works pretty well. It should: the director is Edgar Wright, who made Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. This is someone who knows how to twist a genre, and how to be funny as hell.
The zany action doesn’t take itself too seriously: it’s mixed with equally broad and cartoonish humor. The result of all this is a movie that’s simultaneously a good laugh and a trippy visual frolic, with plenty of stoner “whoa”. Also, it’s an all-out artistic deconstruction for the New Media generation, riffing on the tropes and cliches of video gaming, film, anime, comics, and rocknroll all at once. It has some special fondness for the nineteen eighties versions of these things; for instance, some of the video game bits use the styles of the eight-bit era.
So, if this movie is so cool and hep and now and with-it, why did it flop in theaters? Well, there is one serious misstep in how they made the film. They cast Michael Cera as Scott. Cera was riding a bubble of short-term popularity at the time this was made, in which he was cast in one role after another playing the same kind of dorky young character, and apparently this role was exactly one too many: the audience was finally sick of him. I was more than a little sick of him myself after seeing just this one film.
I have not read the comic series that this film is based on. Those who have read it mostly seem to hold the original in high regard, and the most frequent complaint I hear from them about the film adaptation is that the character of Ramona was much better developed in the print version, as was the progress of their relationship. And I can see that this might be a legitimate gripe; the relationship doesn’t really get a lot of screen time put into it once it’s under way. But there’s one other thing I’ve heard about the book version which, I think, points to a much more serious lost opportunity in the film version.
Again, I have not read it... but it’s my understanding that toward the end of the story, Scott ends up having to face an important character flaw. In the movie, he does have to confront one serious failing in how he’s treated his past and present girlfriends, but he doesn’t ever deal with this other issue............................. his propensity to remember things in a way that’s more flattering to himself than the way they actually happened.
And, see, that’s the big missed opportunity, because this gives us a reason for why the story is told as a series of preposterous video game battles. Scott remembers it that way! His personal narrative is all about “Scott is awesome”, until he is confronted with the ways that he is not. If they’d brought more of that into the movie, it would have tied the goofy storytelling technique directly into the more grounded coming-of-age tale at its center with a nice big pretty thematic bow on top.
As it is, you have to accept a story that’s told as video game battles just because, and I suppose that makes it a significantly bigger stretch for the audience. So, to enjoy this movie, you have to just ride with the strangeness and enjoy the odd way it’s told as a thing-in-itself... which for someone like me at least, is very easy to do. It puts a grin on my face. It is a blast, a good time, a visual treat, a pretty enjoyable comedy, and a unique piece of filmcraft — if the trailer looks at all interesting to you, I definitely recommend you see it.