'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World': From Box Office Flop to Cult Classic?


Universal Pictures

One fateful weekend back in August, The Expendables, Eat Pray Love, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World went head-to-head-to-head at the box office, each hoping its target demographic (Spike TV enthusiasts, middle-aged ladies, and teens with carpal tunnel syndrome, respectively) would propel it to a No. 1 finish. The old-guy actioner grappled its way to the top with about $35 million; the Julia Roberts vehicle skidded into second with $23 million. Entirely lost in the shuffle, all the way down at No. 5, was Scott Pilgrim, with a $10.6 million take. The film, which reportedly cost $60 million to make, went on to gross a hair more than $30 million domestically—a disappointing haul by any stretch of the imagination. Odd for such a well-thought-of crowd-pleaser—especially one that thematizes Super Mario Bros.-esque coin collection—but then again there is seldom much sense to be made of the weekly ticket-sales sink-or-swim.

Scott Pilgrim gets its extra life on DVD and Blu-ray this week, and perhaps British filmmaker Edgar Wright's adaptation of Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel will suit the living room better than it did the multiplex. With its comic-book sound-effects onomatopoeias blasting across the screen, and its densely layered video-game references, this is a film that will reward frequent pause-button frame-scouring.

But Scott Pilgrim isn't just a trove of geek-approved in-jokes. Wright, who directed Simon Pegg in the clever but ever-so-slightly-overrated genre spoofs Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—and whose finest work probably remains the minute-and-a-half fake Don't trailer, which ran in the middle of 2007's Grindhouse double feature—also includes in his latest film several of his patented spoofs-in-miniature, including a terrific one-off laugh-tracked scene that imagines a mundane roommate-logistics conversation as sub-Seinfeld-ian kitchen banter. And Chris Evans turns in a brief but near-revelatory comic performance as Lucas Lee, a champion-skateboarder-turned-movie-star who overrides the director to call action on the Toronto set of his latest Expendables-esque high-octane entertainment.

Writing on this site three months ago, David Thier aptly described Scott Pilgrim as "[video] game from broad structure to minute detail, cut about halfway with comic book. Like Inception, it borrowed the sequential, clearly differentiated nature of game structure: six distinct superpowered enemies, one big boss." Those opponents are the "seven evil exes" of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an Amazon.ca delivery girl who compulsively changes her hair color "every week and a half" (definite shades of Kate Winslet's Eternal Sunshine "book slave"). Ramona is the girl of Scott's (Michael Cera) dreams, but in order to date her he must defeat each of the aforementioned exes. Frequently on the sidelines, cheering Pilgrim's progress, are the self-doubt-wracked members of Sex Bob-omb, the garage band in which Scott plays bass; Scott's sister, Stacey (Up in the Air's Anna Kendrick); and Scott's vaguely libertine gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who steals Stacey's boyfriend almost without her noticing.

Far too often Cera characters ineffectually stalk around in brightly colored, sparsely logo'd tees and timidly strum acoustic guitars, yet somehow manage to coolheadedly pass a series of increasingly difficult trials to win a fickle, out-of-his-league girl's affections (though it contains no glimpses of stringed instruments, this year's mildly amusing Youth in Revolt provides a mostly unalloyed example of this formula). But in Scott Pilgrim the actor gets to play more of a heartbreaker than usual, and anyway there's too much madcap visual invention on display to contemplate too deeply why the Cera-nade has become such an integral part of the majority of the star's screen performances.

In a recent screen-cap-juxtaposition post entitled "Orange Rectangular Surfaces," the critic Glenn Kenny drew a direct parallel between Wright's film and the candy-colored 1977 Japanese horror variety hour-and-a-half House, released just last month on home video by the Criterion Collection. There is perhaps no better analogue for Scott Pilgrim than House: Both films feel as if they really have opened doors to another dimension, or at least performed delightfully demented pitch-bends on time and space, so that virtually anything seems possible in the visual plane. If the newer film lacks the handmade quality of the older one, it embraces its 8-bit artificiality with a comparable enthusiasm. Here's betting that Scott Pilgrim will in turn be embraced as a cult item for some years to come.