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MOVIE REVIEW

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

High scores for ‘Scott Pilgrim’: Cera has blast in video game-like action film

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’’ may be as close as the movies will ever get to seeing the world through the eyes of an over-caffeinated 23-year-old man-boy playing retro video games on a handheld and listening to a jangle-core iPod playlist while waiting for his girlfriend in an all-night diner in a largish North American city. Which is to say that the movie is of this precise moment and you should probably see it now, since it will be dated by next Tuesday.

The film, which has been directed by Edgar Wright, the cheeky British bad boy who gave us “Shaun of the Dead’’ and “Hot Fuzz,’’ is based on a six-volume graphic novel that you probably haven’t read. You should do that, too. Written and drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the print “Scott Pilgrim’’ is an absurdly charming mash-up of slacker irony and manga mayhem that concerns a group of young, bohemian rock ’n’ roll wannabes in Toronto. Wright’s qualified triumph — to worried fans of the comic, at least — is that he has found the movie equivalent of the source’s sardonic pen-and-ink fizz.

The fans (I’m one) were especially concerned about Michael Cera, who has done the wanly passive Michael Cera thing in so many films now that he has become actively generic. Wouldn’t he brand the character of Scott — an endearing if exasperating mooch who falls in love far too often — with his own overwhelming Cera-tude? Not so much, it turns out. The character’s more annoying traits (self-absorption, an inability to face reality or pick up the check) give the actor a spine on which to build an actual performance. Plus it’s fun to watch Cera beat up super-villains a la “Mortal Kombat’’

That’s the twist that turns “Scott Pilgrim’’ on its magical-realist ear. The hero’s latest crush, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is an Amazon.ca delivery girl with a knowledge of time-space wormholes and a past that includes seven evil ex-boyfriends, all of whom intend to dispatch Scott for his effrontery. Where the graphic novel was an inspired riff on the cliches of martial arts comics, Wright builds his film on the patchy narrative leaps of video games and their surrounding cargo culture. For all intents and purposes, “Scott Pilgrim’’ is a video game — the opening Universal logo is a blast of eight-bit Casiotone heaven — but one that keeps rebooting itself with satiric nonchalance.

Anyone who grew up pumping quarters into an arcade booth or mashing their thumbs into numbness will recognize the riffs and references, the stutter-stop speed at which “Scott Pilgrim’’ moves. Whenever one of the boyfriends is vanquished, he vanishes in a burst of coins — jackpot! Sound effects erupt on the soundtrack and in on-screen visuals, along with witty ID tags lifted straight from the comic. Power-ups and extra lives are possible. This isn’t how your average college kid experiences life; it’s just how he wishes he could.

The movie is packed with characters and likable actors, and if you know the source it’s fun seeing how the filmmakers have cast to the cartoon. Despite the title, “Scott Pilgrim’’ is very nearly stolen by Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott’s imperious gay roommate and moral conscience, and there are piquant turns by Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, Scott’s much-abused high school girlfriend; Anna Kendrick as his level-headed sister; and Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation’’ as the terrible-tempered Julie Powers (when she swears, her mouth censors itself). Sadly, Winstead’s Ramona is a dud, with none of the magic the character needs to root Scott or us to the spot.

Extra-special guest stars like Brandon “I used to be Superman’’ Routh turn up as some of the ex-boyfriends, but by the time Jason Schwartzman is wheeled out as the slickest, slimiest evil ex of all, “Scott Pilgrim’’ is running out of batteries. Wright stages the combat scenes as deliriously silly comedy-action set pieces — he understands they’re dance numbers when all is said and done — but a fight is a fight is a fight, and the movie has too many of them.

After a while you start yearning for something, anything, substantial on which to hang your interest. It ain’t happening, and when “Scott Pilgrim’’ comes down from its all-night Red Bull buzz, you’re left with surprisingly little to take home. Oddly, the movie I kept thinking of was “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,’’ the 1984 cult film in which just as much happens and just as outrageously with just as little effect. The difference is that “Buckaroo Banzai’’ didn’t see itself as a generational statement of purpose, or lack thereof. To really give your heart to “Scott Pilgrim,’’ you have to be young enough to still believe in extra lives.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Written by: Wright and Michael Bacall, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Anna

Kendrick, Brandon Routh,

Jason Schwartzman

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 112 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (stylized violence, sexual content, language,

drug references)

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