An unmotivated 20-something must fend off the seven evil exes of his new girlfriend if he wants to date her.
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Ellen Wong
Review by Jon Kissel
Within a style I don’t like is a story that also tests patience. The film follows its titular character through a period of early-20’s aimlessness and romantic selfishness. Classic indie young adult fare, except that all of his and love object Ramona Flowers’ past baggage are presented as fighting-game rivals that must be defeated. Leavening introspective navel-gazing with rapid-fire action setpieces is something that Wright is well-suited to, as two-thirds of the Cornetto Trilogy stop dead for tearful confessions or goodbyes, but the problem here is that Scott Pilgrim, as played by Michael Cera, doesn’t hold much rooting interest. He’s introduced as an infantile dirtbag, a lady-killer wannabe jerky-jerk, a guy who could conceivably start GamerGating when women start critiquing his precious video games in a few years time. Scott’s a beta-poisoner, a Jerry from Rick and Morty who manipulates people by being purposefully pathetic.
Growth from such a low starting point is demanded, and the Scott at the end is not the Scott at the beginning, but the film exhausts my patience with him early. Being so cruel to rebound girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) is a dealbreaker. The five year age difference and the potential illegality aside, Scott keeps her around as a placeholder and a confidence booster, discounting her feelings and discarding her when he finds someone better. Most of Wright’s visualizations don’t work, but one that does is Knives breathily saying she loves Scott and it represented by a pink cloud that Scott waves away as if it was a fart. That level of emotional obliviousness is shocking. It comes after Scott has fixated on Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cool and self-possessed woman worthy of fixation but that’s exactly what makes an interest in Scott highly difficult to understand. Ramona is in the frozen north because of a failed relationship, so Scott is a rebound for her, but there’s never a moment when the viewer is presented with evidence that this is a sensible relationship. She’s dramatically out of Scott’s league even after he’s experienced some growth by the end of the film, placing the romantic stakes of the film between a relationship that is inappropriate and another that’s nonsensical.
Still, there’s something about Scott Pilgrim that is making it resonate on a deeper level with its many fans, so I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. One of Scott’s realizations over the course of the film is to reconsider his past actions from someone else’s perspective, which prompts him to apologize to both Knives and drummer Kim (Allison Pill) for past shitty behavior. He’s generating his own league of evil exes without realizing it. Creating romantic connections and then severing them, even when it’s the right thing to do, generates ripples of negative energy that the severed have to reconcile or stay angry about. There’s something there to grab onto, but I can’t help it if I can’t get a fingerhold.
I take little admiration from Scott Pilgrim’s themes and how it spells them out, but as a comedy, I’m largely on this movie’s wavelength. Despite Cera’s failure as a romantic lead, he thrives as a comedic lead with his choice of emphases and his physical presence. I love watching him throw his whole body into playing bass, and I love his choice of delivery in ‘bread makes you fat!’ The action centering around the evil exes is fun, even if the stakes make no sense at all. Scott can be thrown hundreds of feet by Lucas Lee and be fine, but he can headbutt Todd into oblivion. Here nor there. Of the evil exes, Chris Evans’ laconic douchiness and Mae Whitman’s witchy ferocity are great, but Brandon Routh practically steals the film. As the braindead, vegan-powered Todd, this is the best thing the failed Superman has ever done. Everything from his and Envy Adams’ (Brie Larson) introduction to Todd’s demise at the hands of the vegan police makes this movie worth it.
The rest of cast has their chance to make significant impressions in roles of all sizes. Winstead is credible as a low-energy person who nonetheless attracts people towards her, and Wong works well as both a spurned ex and as a dedicated fangirl. Pill’s acerbic presence keeps pulling focus, and I enjoy how Anna Kendrick’s Stacey recognizes the smallness of Scott’s problems while also humoring how much he’s concerned with them. Johnny Simmons’ Young Neil gives great dumb face. On the negative side, it’s hard to ignore that three minorities in the cast, Satya Bhabna’s Johnny Patel and Shota and Keita Seita as the Katayanagi twins, are reduced to Bollywood stereotypes in the case of the former and silent for the latter.
Scott Pilgrim’s a hard film to love, and I can imagine aggressively disliking it as well, but I’m left in the middle thanks to the charm of what works. This is a fine movie to have on in the background, ignoring what is annoying and looking up for what works or tapping one’s toes to the soundtrack with songs from Beck and produced by Radiohead’s Nigel Goodrich. Like most Wright films, I enjoy Scott Pilgrim’s surface level charms and resist the urge to dig deeper into shallow ground. C+