Michael Cera, in 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World'

Dir. Edgar Wright
(2010, PG-13, 112 min)
★ ★ ½

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would be brilliant were it not for the Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s built on a clever and frequently touching metaphor of young love as a video game, filtering the anxiety of romance through the eyes of the post-Xbox generation. Love literally is a battlefield; instead of baggage, these characters have boss battles. But the film can’t keep still. It’s a funny, sweet, dizzying, over-caffeinated whirligig of disjointed gags bumping into each other at light speed. A lot of it works. It’s intelligent about romantic growing pains. But it needs a chill pill.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Ramona Flowers

Director Edgar Wright showed impeccable command of style in his previous film, the sublime police parody Hot Fuzz. Here he seems to operate on a double shot of espresso and NoDoz. Early scenes develop with an intriguing kind of dream logic. Conversations begin in one setting and continue abruptly in another. Protagonist Scott Pilgrim (the always loveably befuddled Michael Cera), a bassist for an amateur rock band, moves into and out of surreal fantasy worlds, and we start to wonder if any of the film takes place in reality. “Have you seen a girl with hair like this?” he asks, holding up a piece of paper with random squiggles on it. “Yep, that’s Ramona Flowers.”

Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is aloof when we meet her and immediately dismisses the awkward Scott, but he weakens her defenses until she agrees to a date. One problem: By dating her, Scott tacitly agrees to battle to the death with Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes, whose hearts she’s broken in the past. The exes are endowed with superpowers, and somehow so is Scott when he fights them. How does he acquire all those martial arts skills? Sometimes the film is too literal-minded and ironically detached to express wonder at these epic fights. The film is better served if you take it all as figurative.

The real subject of the film is how a young man deals with his girlfriend’s romantic past. Who has she been with? Are they better than me? Will she tire of me? Some of the film’s best scenes take place between the fights, when Scott and Ramona talk about her previous relationships. Through the encounters with her exes, we learn more about her, who she is and what she wants and how her experiences have made her who she is. Winstead is a magnetic presence, with a hipster-cool vibe but grounded, sincere. The film should have followed her lead throughout and been less glib and hyperactive.

The League of Evil Exes

It’s a great idea. The video game aesthetic distills the film’s theme and makes it resonate: you can never truly escape your past, and confronting it can be, to say the least, daunting for the new people who come into your life. At its best, the film plays like an oddball synthesis of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kill Bill. But there’s just so much other … stuff. At one point, Scott enters his apartment to the music of Seinfeld and the soundtrack cues a sitcom laugh track, apropos of nothing. When one girl curses, her mouth is censored by a black bar, but the other characters can see the bar too.

An excess of characters flash across the screen; they’re played by a lot of good actors who don’t have much time to develop them beyond broad types: Scott’s sister Stacey (Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick), his band mates Kim and Stephen (Alison Pill and Mark Webber), and his ex-girlfriend Envy (Brie Larson), not to mention Evil Exes played by Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman. Scott’s roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) is gay, which is all we really know about him and are reminded of at least once per scene; he has a penchant for stealing Stacey’s boyfriends.

Slow down. Take a breath. Use fewer edits. Zero in on your central idea. Wright wrote the screenplay with Michael Bacall, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I haven’t read them and don’t know for sure if the film is as visually faithful to them as I think it might be; a lot of shots look like they were pulled directly from comic book panels. In full motion, they tend to be chaotic. Think of how well shot and choreographed the Kill Bill fights were, and how plaintive the dream-world relationship was in Eternal Sunshine. A little of Tarantino’s visual verve and a little of Michel Gondry’s subtle warmth might have made Scott Pilgrim tighter and more focused. Less is more.