Recent comics-to-film adaptations have concentrated on the superhero genre which has oddly dominated US comics for decades or else gone with the more serious, semi-underground likes of Ghost World, American Splendor or 300; Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, based on Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series, is more like such kooky, self-contained-universe comic strip-to-film adaptations as the musical Li’l Abner or Robert Altman’s Popeye – set in a stylised, fantasised world which has a tangential relationship to actual reality but with all the actions, emotions and consequences inflated to comically absurd heights.
In some sort of version of Toronto, Scott (Michael Cena), a directionless 22-year-old is in a (not that hot) band called Sex Bob-omb, still nursing wounds from a breakup with a girl (Brie Larson) who has gone on to be in a successful band, dating a Chinese Catholic schoolgirl called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and suddenly smitten with variably-haired, dimension-tripping American Amazon.com delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Here’s a thing – do Amazon.com have rollerskating delivery girls in Toronto, or only in Scott’s universe? I actually don’t know (or care), but it’s a measure of the film’s cool that it seems no more or less implausible than her Magik-like ability to get from one place to another via a dark dimension. In order to land Ramona, Scott has to go through the usual indie-movie rom-com trials of an awkward series of dates (plus the business of ditching Knives – this is a film which keeps insisting that Scott’s romantic agonies have consequences for his cast-offs in a surprisingly mature manner without scuppering the fun) and back-and-forth with his appealing circle of twentysomething friends – gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), critical sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), bandmate ‘Stephen Stills’ (Mark Webber), drummer/another ex Kim Pine (AlisonPill, glowering hilariously throughout) and potty-mouthed but blanked-out nagJ ulie (Aubrey Plaza).
These young folks could all live in a Kevin Smith movie, if it weren’t for the candy colours and emo psychedelia — but Scott also has to have fights with Ramona’s ‘seven evil exes’ (not all boyfriends) which riff on the thirty-year history of computer games (his chat-up line is about the history of Pac-Man), all manner of comic superheroes (among the exes are ex-Human Torch Chris Evans and ex-Superman Brandon Routh), a lot of manga/anime kung fu treachery (and, perhaps as a distant inspiration, the list-crossing of Kill Bill) and extreme (ie: stupid) sports. After victories, in which the defeated turn into coins and points float in the air to add to the hero’s score, Scott’s final battle is with impresario Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, who could probably have played all seven exes Kind Hearts and Coronets-style if asked) and then there’s a slightly too-pat ending – for my money, Scott gets off lightly as Kim and Knives both forgive him for frankly being a selfish bastard, though there’s obviously room for a follow-up story in which they figure (Ramona has evil exes, but there must be a reason every other girl in the film hates Scott). It may be that seven is two too many exes (two are twin Japanese DJs, which gets them out of the way) and, as in most fight-through-a-succession-of-enemies kung fu films (Five Deadly Venoms, 5 Elements Ninjas), the individually stunning bouts don’t quite build properly so there’s a flatlining mid-section (enlivened by angry lesbian Mae Whitman, the voice of Tinker Bell) of win after win before the final zapfest.
It’s an exhilarating ride, and shows Wright can step up from British comedy — though there’s a lot of stuff here which might be Canadian comedy to the initiated. It’s also shot through with references and even mores that come from a generation of kids who are only just getting a voice in pop culture, which might make it impenetrable to some (I was as aware of missing tons of things the intended audience areclearly expected to pick up on as I am when watching, say, Ozu’s Tokyo Story). From the film/TV background which informs Wright’s earlier films, and the works of what we might call the Grindhouse generation, this moves on to games, music, comics, fashions and slang that betoken the arrival of a new mode of pop culture. It’s almost odd when a traditional filmreference is made – someone asks if My Stupid Ex-Girlfriend is ‘that UmaThurman movie’ – since this isn’t the Smith-Tarantino language usually spoken; here’s a film aimed at folks for whom The Powerpuff Girls and Superman Returns are already nostalgia from a lost time. It may have arrived a bit too early for instant commercial success, buti t’ll be a signature film for its era and there will soon be a lot more movies like it.
Oh, and to reiterate, Scott should have stuck with Knives.