“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” tosses jokes off in such rapid sucession that you’ll be hard-pressed to keep up. Snarky and clever/emo in the tradition of “Juno” and “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” this film probably wouldn’t be bearable if it took itself at all seriously. The characters are ridiculous, with their arcane video game trivia and text message lingo and It’s-Tuesday-My-Hair-Must-Be-Blue style, but they seem to know it’s all pretty ridiculous, and that makes it okay. You can laugh at them because they wish they could laugh at themselves.
Michael Cera is the titular character, a twentysomething dressed in ringer T-shirts who’s dating a high schooler named Knives and playing bass in an indie band. He doesn’t have a job, or really a future, but these don’t seem like problems so much as irrelevant facts about his life. He falls for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is awfully similar to Kat Dennings, the girl Cera fell for in “Nick and Nora,” except she has hair like Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Cera must battle Winstead’s Seven Evil Exes in order to win her heart. (There is no parsing reality from fantasy here, and director Edgar Wright convinces us there’s no need to.) The battles are creative and fantastic, combining whizz-bang martial arts action with video game special effects and Looney Toons laws of physics. The whole thing is loud and bright and fun and wonderful. I found myself wishing Winstead had fifteen evil exes to fight instead of just seven.
Cera is fine in the lead, playing the same character he always plays. But what really makes “Scott Pilgrim” fun and funny isn’t Pilgrim, it’s his supporting cast. Winstead does great work to keep this movie, with all its ADD cleverness, grounded and bearable: she plays her character with a great dose of world weariness and no tolerance for BS. Kieran Culkin consistently steals scenes as Cera’s gay roommate. Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, Ellen Wong and Allison Pill all bring a great deal of energy to their supporting roles, and the end result is that the world of Scott Pilgrim feels bigger and more complex than what is needed to advance the plot.
“Pilgrim” bogs down towards its climax, as it becomes unclear just what Cera is fighting the Evil Exes for (The girl? His own self-respect? Integrity? The band? The heck of it?) And it tries too hard to cram too many moments of self-revelation into a story that is better when it stays punchy and quick on its feet. But in spite of its third act pacing problems, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” pulls off its own underdog triumph: in spite of its confectionary, comic book style and sensibility, it contains a surprising amount of heart and real emotional substance. Underneath the retro t-shirts, skinny jeans and purple hair are real people, struggling to make deal with their emotional baggage and figure out how to make a relationship work. This is the best comedy of the summer.