Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A)

The Hot Fuzz director’s latest is both fastidious and funny, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A)
dir: Edgar Wright

Plenty of films have sought to reproduce the pleasures particular to reading a comic book, listening to a favourite rock band or getting hopped up on video games. Until Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, no single work has tried to evoke these sensations simultaneously, and with good reason: the combination suggests a migraine rather than a movie. But in the hands of the British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), the effect is a larky kind of overkill. Your eyes are saturated but you don't feel bludgeoned; the film's too-muchness becomes part of its joke.

Wright keeps the tone daft and weightless, in tribute to his picture's hero. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old Canadian bass player with a sizeable ego, little apparent talent and a doting high-school girlfriend called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Adapting Bryan Lee O'Malley's spry graphic novels for the big screen, Wright is pedantically faithful to the ephemera of the page. On-screen sounds retain their onomatopoeic residue - a ringing doorbell leaves the words "Ding dong" hanging in the air. "Love" appears in pink powdery dust when Knives sighs at Scott, only for him to brush it away disdainfully like cigar smoke.

His head has been turned by the arrival in Toronto of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a super-cool roller-skating courier. If Scott can ditch Knives, he might have a future with Ramona. Trouble is, she has a colourful past. Instead of merely overcoming the insecurity he feels about his new girlfriend's old flames, Scott must do battle with seven of them in turn. These martial-arts confrontations are framed in the vocabulary of video games: there are mid-air fisticuffs where the loser combusts into a shower of coins. Victory is heralded by a satisfying jangling, like coming up cherries on a fruit machine.

Watching someone else play a video game ranks only slightly higher on my list of enjoyable experiences than treading on an upturned plug or listening to Libby Purves. But Wright plays the action sequences as slapstick crescendos. One minute the characters are whining and bickering, the next Scott is being hurled through walls. The joke lies in how nonchalant everyone seems. No one questions where Scott, who can't even be bothered to hang up his coat, finds the powers necessary to soar into the air and land a haymaker on the mouth of a flying Bollywood assassin. And for all Wright's stylistic deference to video games and comics, none of the characters has much time for either. These are simply the marinades in which their young lives have been soaked.

In the picture's fastidious direction and editing, Wright confirms his place as Britain's Wes Anderson, or a comedy Kubrick. Both those directors have been known to plan all the fun out of a gag, but so far Wright's controlling tendencies are working in his favour. He sets up pomposity just to puncture it: a breakneck montage of Scott preparing for his final battle grinds to a deflated halt when this supposed action hero takes an age tying his shoelaces.

This is the director's first film outside the UK, and it's possible to pine for the cultural frisson of Hot Fuzz, where a Hollywood-style shoot-out flares up at a rural branch of Somerfield. But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is still a dizzying advance and Wright's confidence comes through in the way he balances visual extravagance with comic intimacy. Each member of the large cast is given some killer lines and some memorable shtick; it's like a revue in which everyone gets their go. And no matter how extreme this alternative world becomes, it retains a soulful tactility. After a hole has been torn in the roof of a nightclub during a spectacular fight, you can't help but coo at the Toronto snow falling into the revellers' hair.

If the film has a weak link, it is Ramona, who is more of an embodiment of cool than a plausible character. The unspoken truth of the film is that Scott should really be with Stacey (Anna Kendrick), the coffee-shop barista who is every bit as sassy as he imagines Ramona to be.Unfortunately, Stacey is also his sister, and the world may not be ready for Scott Pilgrim vs. the Laws of Man and Nature.

Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off