For the first 30 minutes or so, I was certain Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had nabbed a spot on my list of the best films of the year. By the last 30 minutes, I couldn’t wait for it to end. In adapting Bryan O’Malley’s six-volume graphic novel, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) has thrown the kitchen sink, the refrigerator, the dishwasher and the plumbing into the mix. The result is initially exhilarating, ultimately exhausting.
Part of the problem is built into the central premise. The geeky eponymous hero (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old guitarist dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a high schooler who is only allowed outside while the sun is up. Scott and Knives have never so much as kissed — they have, however, held hands — so he doesn’t feel much remorse when he lays eyes on the (literal) girl of his dreams, and she agrees to go out on a date.
Her name is Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She has a wry sense of humor. She changes her hair color every other week, and she comes with a big catch: Her seven evil exes, intent on controlling her romantic future, pop up one after the other to challenge Scott to a fight to the death.
Scott’s first throwdown, against a boy (Satya Bhabha) Ramona dated briefly in the seventh grade, is the film’s best, a Street Fighter-style punch out incorporating flying dropkicks, wire-fu, demonic harpies and a Bollywood number. The second, against a tough-guy movie star (Chris Evans) and his army of body doubles, is also amusing. The third, in which Scott squares off against a hard-line vegan (a surprisingly funny Brandon Routh) whose eating habits give him godlike powers, is capped by a great punch line.
But by the time the fourth evil ex shows up, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World starts to grow tiresome, its repetition an enemy even Scott cannot vanquish. Wright, who also wrote the script with Michael Bacall, packs the movie with great supporting characters to distract you from the rinse-and-repeat structure of the screenplay. Kieran Culkin scores some big laughs as Scott’s gay roommate. Anna Kendrick nails the nagging sister bit, and Alison Pill effectively channels vintage Molly Ringwald as the drummer of Scott’s band who still hasn’t gotten over being dumped when they dated in high school.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World captures the experience of reading a comic book better than any other movie I’ve seen: The screen often splits into diagonal or horizontal panels; blocks of texts float in the air, and occasionally animation takes over. As O’Malley in the books, Wright also draws heavily on video games, although the references extend back to the Pong/Atari 2600 generation, so practically no one with a passing interest in the movie will feel left out (the soundtrack is full of recognizable beeps and boops from consoles and computers you register subconsciously).
There’s no denying the creative invention of the film, and its humor is consistent to the end. Wright can turn even the simple act of tying a shoelace into a funny gag. But the rapid-fire pace, combined with the constraint of the locked-in premise, eventually starts to feel a little oppressive, and although Cera is terrific as the skinny, gawky nobody who proves exceedingly difficult to kill, he has practically no chemistry with Winstead. You never buy Scott and Ramona — he and the too-young Knives make a more amusing couple — and without emotional involvement, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World becomes a fatal case of flash over substance. Pretty great flash, though.
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Jason Schwatzman, Brandon Routh, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Alison Pill, Satya Bhabha.
Director: Edgar Wright.
Screenwriters: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright.
Producers: Marc Platt, Eric Gitter, Nira Park.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, mock video-game language, adult themes.