Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, doing what Michael Cera does - which, no, I don't think is necessarily a bad thing) is the 22 year old bass player in a rock band "Sex Bob-omb" (a cute reference to the Mario games) that he freely admits sucks, still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after a particularly painful breakup with Envy Adams, now a famous rock star, which has resulted in his dating a 17 year old by the name of Knives Chau - a move that causes his bandmates and friends to question his sanity. "It's just... simple, I guess", he explains to his sister early in the film, highlighting Pilgrim's refusal to grow up at the crossroads of young adulthood and adulthood - and the film's many attempts to connect with this kind of youth-in-extremis vibe struck me as pandering. When he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine, both physically and as an actor), his desire for a more adult relationship - one with things like physical contact - causes him to pursue Ramona while he's supposed to be dating Knives, and the film plays his infidelities as another part of the refusal to grow up schtick that's supposed to be endearing, which I instead found obnoxious. The film's take on romance- even taking into account that it's young romance played in a comic book context - leaves much to be desired.
The film is never once critical of what a selfish asshole Pilgrim is, celebrating his confused, aimless, mixed up life as a symbol of counter-culture hipness. The films are wildly different, but I kept going back to Wes Anderson's Rushmore in my head when watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - imagine if Anderson's film treated Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer know-it-all exterior not as the facade of a confused adolescent, but as a genuine persona, and you basically have the cinematic Scott Pilgrim (I have not read Brian O'Malley's series of comics, so I can not comment on whether or not this element is true to the source material) - he doesn't just think he's hot shit, the film treats him as such, and to my mind this is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's critical flaw, celebrating the main character's vanity.
And it is not just Pilgrim's vanity that the film celebrates, the film exalts Ramona Flowers' narcissism as well - every relationship you enter has baggage, but Flowers has caused so much pain in her past relationships (she "dabbled in being a bitch", she tells Scott) that her former significant others have created the league of "Seven Evil Exes", whom Pilgrim must battle to the death if he wishes to date Ramona. It's an inventive, humorous device, but one that I feel wears out its welcome by the film's end - especially tiresome is the second to last battle with the Katayanagi twins, the dispensing of which would have made for a much leaner picture. What I find dubious is the way the film plays Ramona's 'troubled past' as a tragedy - events that happened to the characters in middle school and 9th grade are depicted in an almost mythic manner (and in the style of O'Malley's art for the comics), and I'm not so sure it's played in a way that's supposed to be ironic; Wright is deeply invested in his characters and their emotions, even if to a fault, in a film that's supposed be a goofy post-modern mash up. But the film offers no commentary on the way young people's lack of perspective causes them to make mountains out of molehills with respect to failed relationships, instead playing the juvenile high school crush phase as a kind of true love that some characters never get over.
It is Wright's considerable visual panache that saves the film from failure, and the inventive use of technique is too numerous to even mention here, but some things that really stuck out: the opening 16 bit version of the famous Universal logo, complete with MIDI soundtrack; the inventive use of cinematic space, established in the opening shot which transforms a basement used for Sex Bob-omb's rehearsal into the widest of valleys; the opening credits (which my pal Jake Cole astutely notes as Brakhage-esque in his great review), a pure expression of Wright's sense of music and its relation to image, as well as his considerable sense of color and cinematic rhythm; the De Palma esque use of split screens; the somehow not campy integration of comic book aesthetics into a motion picture - perhaps no film ever has better captured the feeling of reading panel-to-panel; the integration of video game image and sound that, again, is never campy or cutesy - particularly memorable is the use of The Legend of Zelda's theme music, which Wright called "the lullaby of a generation"; the visual humor (there is a moment where the film spoofs super hero film's traditional "suiting up" sequence, which I thought was the film's most inspired moment); Jacon Schwartzman's character Gideon, a clear channeling of Paul Williams' performance as Swan from De Palma's masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise (a film whose influence is all over Scott Pilgrim). Wright's aesthetics combine every element of pop culture - there are references to work in virtually every medium - into a phantasmagoria of image and sound that, if hollow, is never boring for a second, and Wright balances the film's hyperactivity so expertly that it's never overwhelming. Still, in spite of the wildly inventive aesthetics, I feel that the film's attitudes toward romance and entering adulthood are every bit as shallow as its main character.