This is going to sound like blasphemy - especially to the film's target audience - but here goes: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is way more involving when it focuses on actual people and the palpable angst of young love rather than the video game-style duels to the death in which the title character finds himself.
There. Go ahead and send nasty e-mails. But it's true.
Director and co-writer Edgar Wright certainly creates an infectious energy in bringing Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels to the screen, with wonderfully weird little details sprinkled throughout. No surprise there, given Wright's previous films - the excellent "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" - which reveled in the deliriously absurd elements of everyday life.
But it's those kinds of relatable factors - and some lively performances from an appealing, eclectic cast - that make the movie work. The video game flourishes grab you the first couple times: the point totals that accumulate on screen during battles, the tiny, pink hearts that explode from the mouths of a couple's first kiss, the way in which Scott's enemies collapse into a pile of coins once he's vanquished them. Often the action is split in a way that suggests the panels of a comic book coming to life, or words like "Ding Dong!" and "Blam!" appear on screen. It's the ultimate geek mash-up.
These devices grow repetitive and tiresome, though, especially once you realize that Scott really is going to have to fight every one of his new girlfriend's seven evil exes - the arbitrary task that's placed before him. (Thankfully, he takes on a set of twins simultaneously.)
Scott doesn't have all that much going for him anyway that would make him a natural fighter; the fact that he's played by Michael Cera pretty much tells you all you need to know. Just when you thought Cera might have more characters to offer on screen beyond the sweet, smart, hoodie-clad underdog ... well, apparently he doesn't. From "Arrested Development" to "Superbad" to "Youth in Revolt," he's got that guy down pat. The schtick has long since grown old but, in this case, at least it makes sense.
Speaking of arrested development, that's Scott's perpetual state. He's 22 and plays bass in a garage band with his friends (Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons and a hilariously surly Alison Pill on drums). He lives in a shabby studio and shares a mattress on the floor with his gay best friend (Kieran Culkin). And he's dating a worshipful high schooler named Knives Chau (a charmingly pathetic Ellen Wong), with whom he peruses the many record shops and thrift stores of Toronto.
But when he meets the saucy and mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a delivery girl with ever-changing hair colors, he's instantly smitten. Just as quickly, though, he finds he must defeat her seven evil exes to win her heart. As played by Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman and Chris Evans, among others, they're a bizarre cross-section of humanity, and the animated flashbacks explaining how Ramona ended up with each of them are brief and amusing. (If nothing else, Wright makes "Scott Pilgrim" move with consistent fluidity. Michael Bacall co-wrote the snappy script.)
Trouble is, Scott is never as interesting as the various freaks who surround him, both friends and foes. There's a ton of great roles for strong young actresses here; besides Pill and Winstead, Anna Kendrick is engagingly sharp as always as Scott's younger sister, and Brie Larson stands out as the ex who broke his heart en route to becoming a rock star. Culkin steals every scene he's in, and his presence alone is enough to make you wonder how much better "Scott Pilgrim" might have been with a central figure who had a little more personality. Sure, Scott is supposed to be a nerd, but he didn't have to be boring.
Nevertheless, the dialogue and the music keep you engaged, at least while the movie lasts. Once it's game over, though, it may not stick with you for very long afterward - which, in retrospect, is appropriate given the short attention span of the generation it caters to and reflects.
"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references. Running time: 112 minutes.