We’re Sex Bob-omb and we’re here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff.
—Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera)
It’s tough being an alt-geek these days. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, good as he’s ever been), 22-year-old Torontonian and epically anxious slacker, knows this all too well. He’s still moping over being duped last year by a girl who’s now the singer for a skyrocketing band named for the old Nintendo game “The Clash at Demonhead.” (Such references are strewn throughout the film: when a band’s hanger-on is asked what he plays, he slowly answers, “Zelda… Tetris,” as though his life depended on it.) Scott’s in his own band, the stutterifically named Sex Bob-omb, but they can barely get a gig, while his ex’s pouty visage taunts him from promos all over the local record store.
No matter that Sex Bob-omb’s sound has a fantastic, fuzzed-out garage-rock sound, with pounding Runaways-style drums, provided by Kim (Alison Pill), another of Scott’s exes. His woe-is-me mood has reduced him to (chastely) dating a 17-year-old girl from a Catholic high school, Knives Chou (a high-voltage Ellen Wong). Channeling her bubblegum glee, Knives works overtime as Sex Bob-omb’s only groupie. Her enthusiasm leaves her blind to the change in Scott when he spots the true woman of his dreams.
Literally: Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblades through a dream of his before appearing in his reality. She’s got bright fuchsia hair topped with an antique set of goggles, a quizzical and standoffish manner, and reams of shocked and awed rumors about her New York background. In short, she’s exactly the sort of girl whom Scott will chase after while feeling mortally inferior, which is exactly what happens once he finally convinces her to go on a date. As Scott forgets to inform Knives about this new development, both two girls show up for Sex Bob-omb’s set at a battle of the bands. The anticipated girlfriend-blowup doesn’t quite happen, though, as one Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) swoops into the place like a DC Comics supervillain and announces that he’s going to fight Scott.
At this point, director Edgar Wright has encased the film in a slick coating of graphic novel stylistic tics (fitting, as it’s based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series). With the arrival of Matthew, the line between the story and video game becomes nearly invisible. Scott leaps into the fray, soaring through the air like a wuxia hero, delivering mighty blows to his opponent as the screen split between his and Matthew’s faces. Even better, when Matthew has been vanquished, there is nothing left behind but a scattering of coins, and a bleeping notation on the screen showing that Scott has just earned 1,000 points.
As briefly happy as he may be, however, Ramona isn’t the most forthcoming of pseudo-girlfriends. It turns out that her “seven evil exes” have combined forces in a sort of chastity-belt alliance to array themselves between her and Scott. If he wants Ramona, he’ll have to fight his way through all of them.
Wright handles the story’s recasting of its YA romantic comedy as an emo-meets-Mortal Kombat game with no small inventiveness; his incorporation of 1990s-style arcade game graphics and booping sound effects is nothing less than masterful. Still, it’s hard not to feel distracted by the first fight, particularly after learning that there are six more to go. The film’s beautiful little snow-globe of an underground Toronto, full of skuzzy apartments and coffee shops, is initially seeded with such an engaging plethora of characters. (A dark-eyed and predatory Kieran Culkin brilliantly deadpans through a performance as Wallace Wells, whom Scott introduces to everyone as “my cool gay roommate.”) This makes the boyfriend battles initially come off as a gimmicky sop to the novels’ core audience.
But as Scott battles through each level (as in a video game, the exes only attack one at a time, instead of ganging up), the action is incorporated into the story’s comically sad-sack storyline with increasing ease. The script scatters little gems throughout, like the ex played by onetime Superman Brandon Routh, who is able to wield incredible powers against Scott because he is a vegan (“It just makes you a better person”). By the time Scott is facing down the final ex, it seems possible that we may have witnessed the creation of a new sub-genre: the romantic comedy action video game. Though the film gives short shrift to O’Malley’s subplots about Scott’s self-defeating laziness, its tricky mix of tongue-in-cheek humor, fantastical battle scenes, romantic ballad-worthy swooning, and geeky signifying is, on the whole, a sweet and wondrous triumph.