Like many people, I’ve tired of Michael Cera’s whiny, wavering, painfully awkward persona. It was cute back when he was on Arrested Development, but he’s not an adorable kid anymore, and the schtick has gotten very old. When I see that little-boy-lost face, hear that whimpering little voice, I want to throttle him and shout that it’s time to grow the hell up already.
Exasperated as I am with Cera, I wasn’t overly optimistic about his new movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but to my considerable amusement, telling his character to grow the hell up turns out to be the whole point of the movie. Every time I rolled my eyes at Scott, virtually all the other characters rolled their eyes at him, too—a very gratifying development indeed.
But there’s more to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than eye rolling. Director Edgar Wright (who also cowrote the screenplay adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels) got his start working with Simon Pegg, directing the cult TV show Spaced and the brilliantly satiric movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and with those collaborations, he’s developed a wonderful sense of style, an ability to craft action sequences that are both thrilling and hilarious. That talent serves him well with Pilgrim, which constantly references the aesthetic of O’Malley’s graphic novels as well as countless old video games while still functioning as a exuberant, glossy movie. Thematically, it doesn’t quite come together—the metaphors are hopelessly mixed—but it’s delightful to watch, definitely more fun than your average action comedy.
Cera plays the titular Scott Pilgrim, an underachieving twentysomething hipster who plays bass in a band with his friends. At the movie’s outset, Scott is “dating” naïve high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), mainly because he fetishizes her Asian ethnicity and because she clearly believes he’s some sort of god. Knives loses all her allure, however, when Scott catches a glimpse of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a morose, quasi-mysterious fellow hipster who dyes her hair frequently to compensate for her lack of personality. Scott pursues Ramona single-mindedly but soon learns that to date her he will have to defeat her Seven Evil Exes in a series of video-game-like battles. The battles reveal not only Ramona’s romantic past but also Scott’s, straining their nascent relationship.
I understand that battling the Seven Evil Exes is supposed to represent Scott coming to terms with Ramona’s baggage as well as his own, indicating that he’s finally starting to mature a bit, but I don’t think it works. Intentions aside, the scenario still feels uncomfortably paternalistic, making the relatively passive Ramona a prize to be won from the previous men in her life. The final battle muddies the waters further, but again the stated metaphors feel tacked on to sequences that don’t support them. The idea of telling a coming-of-age story through old-school video game references is an interesting one, but those video games ultimately are too shallow to sustain the conceit. I haven’t read O’Malley’s graphic novels—maybe he achieves more nuance there—but on screen, the framework doesn’t hold.
That said, the video-game stylization is a lot of fun (though that might be less true if you don’t get the allusions—I catch just enough to get by), and each battle is cleverly conceived and put together. I had wondered whether the battles would become repetitive, but Wright gives each its own flavor, and they’re all terrifically entertaining. The performances are fun, too. Pretty-boy action star Chris Evans of the dreadful Fantastic Four flicks plays pretty-boy action star Lucas Lee, Evil Ex No. 2, with self-mocking zeal; Mae Whitman alone conveys the heartache of being dumped in her performance as Roxy, Evil Ex No. 3; and Jason Schwartzman is delectably creepy as Gideon, Evil Ex No. 7, the mastermind behind the whole League of Evil Exes. Even better are the talented young actors who play Scott’s friends and acquaintances. Anna Kendrick is perfectly biting as Scott’s condescending but affectionate sister; Aubrey Plaza gives the impatient, hard-working Julie a bracing sense of anger; and Kieran Culkin, playing Scott’s roommate, Wallace, demonstrates impeccable comic timing with his many wry digs.
As for the trio at the movie’s center, they do their best. Winstead has the least to work with—and she never manages to show what Ramona sees in Scott—but she has enough presence to make the object of Scott’s affection feel like more than an object. Wong makes a heartbreakingly sweet Knives. Her pain is one of the few emotions that really percolates through all the contrivance, and her big scene toward the end is one of the most memorable in the movie.
And Cera—well, I wanted to throttle him, but that worked here. Plus, he always has been a talented comic actor, with great timing and an admirable willingness to let himself look foolish, and he reaffirms that in Pilgrim; his exchanges with Culkin are particularly entertaining. I still think he needs to expand his range, but maybe Pilgrim is the start of that. Flawed though it may be, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is about maturing past whiny, wavering, painfully awkward self-absorption. It’s nice to think that Cera the actor might follow in his character’s footsteps.