Pilgrim’s progress

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

No superpowers, no fancy spandex suit, no mask. Seriously, this kid has problems.

No superpowers, no fancy spandex suit, no mask. Seriously, this kid has problems.

Rated 3.0

At a party years ago, a friend of mine blundered into a darkened room and interrupted a friend of hers and a guy she’d met at the party just as they were (shall we say) approaching the final stages of heavy petting. She quickly apologized and backed out, but the friend came up to her later and thanked her for the interruption: “We were just about to do it, and I really didn’t want to.”

Well, my friend said, if you don’t want to, you really don’t have to. “I know,” said her pal, “but whaddya gonna do when a guy starts cryin’?”

There’s a bit of that kind of desperate neediness about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It has “cult movie wannabe” stamped on every frame; its highest ambition is to be the Napoleon Dynamite of 2010. If you go to Scott Pilgrim, you may well like it, especially if you’re in its 18-to-24 target audience; it has more than a modicum of mordant wit and visual pizzazz. On the other hand, you may simply agree to like it just so the pleading tears from the screen don’t get your popcorn all soggy.

Director Edgar Wright is no stranger to the cult-movie phenomenon; he directed Shaun of the Dead. Here he and his co-writer Michael Bacall, adapting the multivolume graphic novels of Bryan Lee O’Malley, pull out all the stops to give multiplex slackers their money’s worth. If Scott Pilgrim fails to find its audience (which I doubt), it won’t be because Wright didn’t know who the audience was, or failed to give it all they’ve got.

Michael Cera plays Scott, a 23-year-old garage-band bass player in Toronto still hung up on the girl who dumped him when her own band made it big. He’s rebound-dating a 17-year-old high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). His bandmates have names like Stephen Stills and Young Neil (an in-joke for the oldsters in the crowd), and they deride his cradle snatching, as does his gay platonic roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin, simmering with droopy-eyed cynicism); even his pal and drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill) snaps, “Scott, if your life was a face, I’d kick it.”

Then Scott meets the girl of his dreams—literally: He’s been dreaming about her, and now, to his astonishment—or as close to astonishment as the mopey-muttery Scott ever gets—he sees her in the flesh: Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a recent transplant from New York who came to Toronto to shed a mysterious past about which she says little. Scott makes fumbling overtures (urged by Wallace to use “the ‘L’ word,” he blurts to Ramona, “I’m in lesbians with you”). Ramona’s attitude is an inscrutable mix of genuine interest and what-the-hell-why-not.

Scott soon learns the hard lesson of Agnes Allen’s law: Everything is easier to get into than out of. Ramona has left behind her a trail of broken—or at least bent and twisted—hearts who have become a loose confederation, the League of Evil Exes, and Scott will have to battle each of them to the death if he hopes to win the limply diffident hand of the fair Ramona Flowers.

“We all have our baggage,” she tells Scott, who replies, “Yeah, but my baggage doesn’t try to kill me every five minutes.”

On the page, O’Malley’s black-and-white manga-flavored comics have the look of something doodled on binder paper by a ninth-grader after taking a six-week “You Too Can Draw” correspondent’s course. For the movie, Wright ups the ante. He includes O’Malley’s little factoid boxes to describe characters (“Wallace Wells; 25 years old; Fun Fact: He is gay”), and litters the screen with comic-book sound-effect words (“Ri-i-i-n-g!” “Whooosh!”).

But when the fighting starts—and there’s a lot of it—1990s-style video games take over; the movie becomes a sort of mash-up homage to Super Mario Bros., Doom, Street Fighter, etc. Through it all, there’s a tension between Scott Pilgrim’s adopted too-cool-for-school attitude and its mosh-pit desperation to be the Hot New Youth Thing that’s actually pretty endearing.

Michael Cera, to give him due, carries the movie easily. Maybe too easily; we’ve seen this from him before. If he has another kind of performance in him, he should think about trotting it out. Scott Pilgrim may not prove to be the Napoleon Dynamite of 2010, but Cera could easily become the Jon Heder of 2015.