"Scott Pilgrim" conjures a limp comic-book world

SAN DIEGO (Hollywood Reporter) - Chore No. 1 is accomplished: The fanboys and girls gave a resounding shriek of approval to Universal’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” at Comic-Con following its “surprise” screening here at this event that has become a kind of Halloween for adults.

Cast member Michael Cera is interviewed as he arrives for the premiere of the film "Paper Heart" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 17, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

But the question remains -- will anybody else care?

Director/producer/co-writer Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) has successfully reproduced the imagery and worldview of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel of the same name, itself a mash-up of manga, video games, music videos and comic-book iconography. It’s fair to say that a significant number of moviegoers would count that no achievement at all, but none of them is likely to see a movie called “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.”

So Universal should have a youth hit in the domestic market when the film opens August 13. A wider audience among older or international viewers seems unlikely.

Scott Pilgrim -- O’Malley flatters himself by borrowing the last name of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” hero -- is played by Michael Cera, Hollywood’s go-to guy for dewy-eyed male innocence that somehow isn’t cloying. Scott is a geeky kid in Toronto -- check that, he’s a geeky twentysomething playing bass guitar in a talent-free garage band, who should be getting on with his life instead of playing guitar and dating a high-school girl.

Everyone, from his younger, scandalized sister (Anna Kendrick) and weirdly gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) -- weird not because he’s gay but because Scott sleeps in the same bed with him, but “nothing” is going on -- to fellow band members (Mark Webber and Alison Pill) wonders about that 17-year-old girl, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), in his life.

Perhaps it has something to do with the devastation caused a year prior when his ex (Brie Larson) broke his heart and, worse yet, became a rock star.

None of this matter when Scott’s eyes seize on Romana Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysteriously dangerous woman with constantly changing hair colors, who totally vamps him. He is so obsessed with her -- and she seems to return the favor, albeit with some reluctance -- that he is willing to battle to the death her “seven evil exes” to win her heart.

Why must he battle former loves extending back to seventh grade? Who knows? Certainly no intelligible explanation is forthcoming. It’s a touchstone of the current multitudes of young comic-book and graphic-novel readers, and by extension those who go to movies, that such explanations aren’t expected or required. That’s just the way it is.

So the rest of the movie is taken up with heroic duels with ex-boyfriends -- no, check that, also one ex-girlfriend from when Romana was “going through a phase” -- where he fights using his fists, hitherto unmentioned martial-arts skills, bellowing musical instruments, flashing knives and, yes, half and half. The latter, you understand, defeats an ex-boyfriend (Brandon Routh) who is a vegan.

The movie does everything its makers can dream up to imitate a manga: Screens split in half and then in half again. Action speeds up or slows down. Comic-book word sounds -- “whoosh,” “r-i-i-i-i-n-g,” “thud” and the like -- pepper the screen. Back stories about exes are told in rudimentary sketches. The movie frame becomes a graffiti zone where the filmmakers can insert all sorts of written commentary including the fact that a character has to pee. How edifying is that?

What’s disappointing is that this is all so juvenile. Nothing makes any real sense. The “duels” change their rules on a whim and no one takes the games very seriously, including the exes, who, when defeated, explode into coins the winner may collect.

Certainly Cera doesn’t give a performance that anchors the nonsense. His character sort of drifts, not really attached to any idea or goal other than winning the heart of an apparently heartless woman while dissing a girlfriend who, despite her “youth,” seems ideally suited to his slacker personality.

This is a discouragingly limp movie where nothing is at stake. A character can “die,” then simply rewind video and come back to life. Or change his mind about his true love and then change it again. Scott Pilgrim’s battle isn’t against the world; it’s against an erratic moral compass.