Based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a manga-doodle that draws from the wellspring of popular culture, viewing youthful infatuation through a filter of indie rock, action comics, and a selection of classic arcade and Nintendo games. It’s a series steeped in irony, bestowing magnificent powers on an ineffectual Canadian who can barely muster the courage to talk to a girl, yet reluctantly does battle with her ex-boyfriends. There’s perhaps no better director to bring it to the screen than Edgar Wright, whose Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz are similarly informed by a culture-addled mind, and he brings a great elasticity to Scott Pilgrim, which stretches the medium to accommodate O’Malley’s comic-book universe. So why, given its moment-to-moment surplus of visual imagination, does the film feel so hollow and unsatisfying?
Part of the problem is that the center doesn’t hold. With his scrawny frame and total lack of affect, Michael Cera seems like the right choice to play Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old slacker who owns nothing in his shared one-room Toronto apartment and is perhaps the least essential member of an unfortunate rock outfit called Sex Bob-omb. When the lovely, mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) comes into Scott’s life, it’s essential that Cera suggest some measure of heartsick passion, especially once he’s confronted by Ramona’s seven evil exes, who challenge him to Mortal Kombat-like duels. The disparity between these epic fight sequences and the low-stakes romance at the film’s core throws Scott Pilgrim fatally off-balance, and no amount of graphic invention can entirely rescue it.
Wright gives it his best: Scene by scene, Scott Pilgrim pops with bright, three-dimensional flourishes—CGI done right, for once—and the script adds a droll wit that’s perfectly in tune with its gallery of smart, sarcastic characters. Yet taken as a whole, the film’s caffeinated energy burns to exhaustion, in part because the intensity of Scott’s feelings for Ramona are never articulated. The concept of Scott fighting the evil exes is a giant metaphor for dealing with the baggage that people bring into a relationship, but Wright and Cera don’t bring those gnawing pangs of jealousy and doubt across. Their film is an assault on the senses that’s numb in the heart.