Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is based on a series of graphic novels, but you'd be better off having kept up with video games for the past 20 years if you hope to follow it. Basic familiarity with the world of indie-rock bands is also helpful for this sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating comedy. Same with kung-fu movies, anime and many other pop-media references, as sardonic humor will be visited upon them all before the film is done slicing and dicing.
You'll get the most out of the experience if you can do without context and perspective. Ostensibly a newfangled romantic comedy, the movie is the ultimate in attention-deficit-oriented stimulation, a rapid-fire neo-screwball comedy for those who don't understand why you shouldn't iPhone during a movie, even one replete with graphical aids and animation (one character is “Rated T for Teen”). Sincerity alone is deemed too lame to bother with.
The story centers on Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old slacker who typifies the post-collegiate set by concentrating on girls and his band while avoiding employment at all costs. (His last job, he tells us, was “a long story filled with sighs.”) Scott is seeing the glow of dating a high school girl (Ellen Wong) fade when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who's testy, difficult, aloof and unpredictable. In short, she's the girl of his dreams.
There's only one problem: Ramona has a few ex-boyfriends — seven to be exact — who haunt her like colorfully shaven debt collectors. Each has a back story and, more curiously, superpowers, which Scott must defeat, bringing all the fury of the four elements and then some into the fray. Not surprisingly, it's the action stuff that becomes monotonous and interruptive. The movie's breakneck style and humor is great. Did it need mortal combat, too?
Other questions might vex you first. Ask yourself, for example, if you get the cultural reference point in Scott's band's name, Sex Bob-omb. If you do, does it induce laughter or a groan? It's important to note that the movie is making fun of its characters even as it exults in their adolescent preening. Such dual allegiance proves as difficult as it does gratifying.
The movie was directed by Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the adaptation of a graphic novel series created by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Wright was responsible, at least in part, for the indie comedy hits “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” He specializes in the kind of post-ironic goofiness slathered over the romantic escapades in “Pilgrim,” and the graphic novel template has allowed him to vault far beyond the reveries of zombie and buddy-cop movie parody.
He's done O'Malley a big favor by making his work seem a lot cooler than it really is. The movie has a much broader appeal, both encapsulating and heightening many of the books' themes as it skillfully races through the characters' inner and outer lives like a flip book, blurring them into one. The narrative exists on a plane somewhere beyond fantasy and reality, pretty much content to ignore there's a difference between the two. Only Abel Gance cut more frantically.
The graphic novels are also adventurous but comparatively unsophisticated and heedlessly esoteric, totally geeky where the movie is just geek-oriented. Devotees of the original might cry foul, but objectively the changes improve upon the original. Scott Pilgrim himself is the most obvious upgrade. In the comic he's a Canadian version of a bug-eyed, overemphatic character from anime or an old-school video game. In the movie we get Cera, who always plays a version of a younger, more cuddly Woody Allen, and always makes it work. It's a better character. No matter how you feel about Cera, or Allen, it's a safe bet you'd rather hang out with the movie version for nearly two hours than a screaming, fussing, wildly gesticulating line drawing.
The movie's one nagging difficulty is its fight sequences. The first over-the-top battle plays like the ending of a goofy video game adaptation. That goes OK. Then you realize, with some weariness, that there are something like six more to go. Obeisance must be paid to the venerated boss battle, one supposes, but only if you know what a boss battle is, and care. Otherwise feel free to get up and leave around ex number four or five, without fear of missing all that much. (PG-13) 113 min.