In some ways, we’ve seen Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World before. Director Edgar Wright adopts the same postmodern eschewing of pop culture used by Natural Born Killers, Sin City and every Quentin Tarantino film ever made. Comic-book sound effects crowd the frames with the actors, competing with clever time progression, snarky dialogue and an overall tone which screams “look at us commenting on society’s disposable nature!” It’s hugely funny and exhibits a visual spark which few films aspire to, but it doesn’t feel especially new or different. At least at first.
As time goes on, however, and we settle into Wright’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it universe, the true extent of his evil genius becomes known. He’s not mocking pop culture in a postmodern fashion; he’s mocking postmodernism itself. The hip, cynical, too-cool-for school barrier that Gen Xers throw up to shield themselves from constant media bombardment; the ADD blipstream of throwaway references masquerading as clever dialogue; the widespread attitude that relentless mockery is the only way to stay safe from the world… all of that serves as targets for the director’s wit. With that single act, he moves Scott Pilgrim into the ranks of near genius.
The title character springs fully born from the pages of the indie comic which spawned him: an amiable, largely unmotivated bass guitarist for a not-especially good Toronto garage band. Actor Michael Cera dusts off his Arrested Development routine for another go-round, punctuated here by sudden bursts of fantastical kung fu when the forces of evil conspire to destroy him. Specifically, he faces seven super-powered douche bags, former beloveds of the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whom he must destroy if he wishes to save her. They form the fulcrum of the film’s whiplash jolts into the surreal. Before the first one arrives, Scott’s world seems comparatively normal. Wright adds a sheen of meta-commentary to the proceedings--noting each character’s primary traits in video-game terms, for example--but otherwise, we recognize it as ordinary midwinter Toronto.
Then the first evil ex arrives: Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), sporting Bollywood dance moves and a bevy of demonic chicks singing back up. And suddenly we take a lurching left turn into WTF Land, as Scott leaps off the stage to copious sound effects and commences a brawl straight out of the X-Box. There’s no explanation, no dream sequence framing and no way to escape. It just happens… and the surrounding figures find nothing unusual about the gravity-defying duel any more than they do the shower of gold coins which rain down upon the proceedings once a victor is declared.
With the laws of what we understand to be physics completely tossed aside, Scott Pilgrim leaps full-bore into a strobelight fever dream: endless explosions and metacomments, which the characters treat as no more different than pigeons on the sidewalk. For sheer inspired lunacy, it has few equals, and Wright brings every trick in his substantial playbook to bear for the sake of blowing our socks off. The results are nearly impossible to beat.
The director elevates his game even higher by tempering his ambitions with emotional sincerity. While this universe may follow blipvert logic, the characters exhibit the same longing, desire, fear and hope that anyone who’s ever been in love has experienced. Everything is in play except for those feelings; every preconceived notion is ripe for upending save them. That allows us to immerse ourselves in the endless stream of references without being swept away by them, grounding us in relatable truths that feel no less palpable for the cavalcade of snark surrounding them.
Scott Pilgrim thus manages to have its cake and eat it too, linking us to funny and beautiful emotions through the shared absurdity of our mutual cultural experiences. The manic fragmentation of Wright’s references ultimately leads us back to where we started: a need for connection, a way of laughing together, and a sense that we’ve shared Scott’s triumphs and tragedies in our own lives. That prevents us from detaching from the inspired silliness onscreen. Like Scott, we’re knee-deep in it, and we can either find something genuine to cling to, or become just as much a joke as the Nintendo blender surrounding him. The film lets us laugh at our mutual foolishness--in love and out of it--while honoring what we look for in the midst of it all. In a patently phony era, it may be the only thing worth taking on the world for. Thank God there’s bits of meta-commentary as good as this one to remind us of that fact.