When he first screened 2006's defining cinematic culture shocker Borat, comedy writer George Meyer turned to Judd Apatow and said, "I feel like someone just played me Sgt. Pepper's for the first time." Shaun of the Dead helmer Edgar Wright's new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is no less of a sea change socially – though it's yet to be seen if it will liken Borat's widespread phenomenon – but it's more akin to Are You Experienced? than Sgt. Pepper's.
Wright has conjured from the depths of his (and source originator Bryan Lee O'Malley's) talent and shaman-like pop-culture connection a world that's entirely new, wholly engrossing and, at his most Hendrix-esque moments, downright unfathomable. From the opening pixelated Universal logo and its theme, here rendered in gloriously geeky 8-bit, Wright throws us into the post-collegiate downward spiral of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera). Pilgrim is positioned as a post-millennial Benjamin Braddock, a couch-surfing bassist dating an impressionable (and easily impressed) high-school girl who's still reeling from the loss of his first big love. Then, Ramona Flowers appears right on time – a damaged, fickle-hearted rocker chick who seems to have seen and done it all. Pilgrim wins her attention for the time being and the two fall into bed together in a tender, achingly optimistic love scene (set semi-ironically to the sounds of Sade) that serves as Wright's first notice that he's up to something entirely fresh.
As quickly as the film propels us into the teen romance, it shifts into hyperdrive even faster. As Pilgrim's band flails awkwardly on stage at one of their first gigs, an ex-boyfriend of Ramona's from middle school crashes through the venue's roof demanding a fight to the death with Pilgrim. He obliges and, through some kind of cinema magic, Michael Cera straightens his stature, balls up his fists and unleashes awe-inspiring hellfire upon his opponent. That's when he learns of Ramona's "seven evil exes," all of whom Pilgrim must defeat if he wants to date her.
It's worth noting that my jaw was on the floor well before this scene, but also that it never really picked itself up again afterward. Scott Pilgrim is a video game, a graphic novel and a stoner fantasia come to uproarious life in ways I cannot fully comprehend – the explosive fight scenes must entail more than tricky editing – and other, more craftsmanlike ways. I marveled at Wright's utter disregard for stage business; his characters never quite finish menial tasks like washing their hands. I reveled in the imaginative detours of the film's transitions and garage-rock aesthetic.
There's so much to admire in Scott Pilgrim that it makes its great faults that much more frustrating. Kieran Culkin's turn as Pilgrim's gay roommate is well performed by Culkin but the script (by Wright and actor Michael Bacall) harps on his sexual behavior – He does it with men! Tee-hee! – for so brutally long that the vague homophobia lingers well after the movie's over. And there's no getting around the exhaustion factor. A movie that moves at this kind of breakneck pace is doomed to wear itself out and Wright's way of presenting each fight as a vignette – a style choice necessitated by the source material – begins to feel like a countdown rather than an escalation.
Still, just as "May This Be Love" doesn't sink Are You Experienced? as a whole, Scott Pilgrim's lesser moments can't discount what Edgar Wright has pulled off here – a truly unique, wildly imaginative time at the movies.