“He punched a hole in the moon for me. That’s pretty crazy.”
It’s also not the kind of line you’d expect to find within Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright’s first film without Simon Pegg or Nick Frost, has quite a different spirit. It still shares a silly sense of humour, and a frenetic visual style, but the mood is a little more absurd, a little more downbeat, and a little more human.
Great as they are, it’s very clear that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were born from the idea of making a zombie film and a buddy cop film respectively. The human characters and their relationships came afterwards. Shaun and Ed (Shaun of the Dead) and Nick and Danny (Hot Fuzz) both form great onscreen duos that have a surprisingly emotional weight for a comedy, but it’s fair to say that comes from Pegg and Frost’s natural chemistry more than anything.
Scott Pilgrim may have a more outlandish premise than either of those two films but its script, adapted by Wright and Michael Bacall from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, relates all its most extreme excess back to basic human emotions. On the surface, the idea of Scott (Michael Cera) having to defeat seven evil exes to be with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is ridiculous, but really it’s a symbolic, almost mythical take on the competitive nature of dating. He might be literally fighting these exes but he’s also competing with them on a more emotional level – as Ramona says at one point, Scott’s the nicest guy she’s dated, and throughout the film he struggles to stay that way just as much as he struggles to win the battles.
A lot of the film’s emotional strength is down to Michael Cera in a career-best lead performance. He does his usual mumbly nerd schtick but adds a tender, fragile dimension when it comes to Scott’s love life. He’s clearly living in the emotional wasteland of a big breakup when we join him, and all of Scott’s rash decisions and depressive moments are reflected through that heartbreak. His comedic performance anchors the film as well, with a pitch-perfect line in anti-comedy dad jokes (“You once were a vegan, now you will be gone… ”) delivered so endearingly they go all the way back round into being funny again.
Scott Pilgrim is also the moment when Edgar Wright’s immense visual storytelling abilities reached their peak. His ability to weave humour and plot points into the very fabric of his punchy direction has always been one of his strong points, but Scott Pilgrim is the finest example of it yet. Take the numerous albums and posters for The Clash at Demonhead dotted around Scott’s world long before the band eventually turn up onscreen with a scene-stealing performance from Brie Larson; or the barely-mentioned fact that Scott and Kim used to date, given tragic pathos with just a few words and looks. The depth to all of these relationships is incredible, and even after watching it for about the tenth time, new meanings keep surfacing.
Visually, Wright’s first two films were a heightened but ultimately faithful representation of British life. With Scott Pilgrim he lets loose with a more impressionistic, dream-like palette. There are the obvious moments in the battles where video game-inspired graphics overwhelm the real worlds, from a (relatively) simple 64-hit combo in the first fight against Matthew Patel to the extravagance of the fighting music monsters in the battle against the Katayunagi twins. But even Scott’s day-to-day life drifts into a visually-authored realm – take, for example, the moment where he remembers his traumatic breakup (and haircut) and the blank space in the frame becomes a canvas for quick cartoons and voiceover commenting on the action. No other director has quite managed to hit that sweet spot between improving a film with visual embellishments and ruining it with CGI overload.
As his new film Baby Driver proves, if there’s one thing Wright can do better than visual storytelling it’s using music to create memorable moments. His soundtracks are a highlight of every film, but with Scott Pilgrim he really embedded his love of music into the narrative, using performance to tell the story in a way that predates Baby Driver.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t a perfect film. It runs a little long, and a few of the exes (like Matthew Patel) don’t quite match up to the rest, but it achieves things that none of Wright’s other films quite manage. Hot Fuzz might be his most “perfect” film with its tight thriller script and relentless flow of jokes, but it’s just not as ambitious. Wright pushes his innovative visuals to their limit in Scott Pilgrim, creating a breathless and endlessly surprising story that never fails to entertain.