Unleashed imagination is a hell of a rare thing to find at the movies this play-it-safe summer. Inception, sure, but then what? Try Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a dazzling distillation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume graphic novel. Many graybeard critics don't understand what any sentient being past the age of reason could find of interest in Scott's plight to win the love of dream girl Ramona Flowers by defeating her seven evil exes in mortal combat. Even with the stellar Michael Cera bringing Scott to vivid flesh-and-blood life, the drill is that comic-book movies are kid stuff. And the haters laugh at the pretension of calling a comic book a graphic novel, same thing as labeling porn adult entertainment.
Why should Scott Pilgrim vs. the World break the jinx? Start with director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the bracing script with Michael Bacall. The power of Wright is evident to anyone who's seen the 36-year-old British filmmaker reinvent the zombie movie in Shaun of the Dead and explode every cop cliché in the book in Hot Fuzz. What true movie junkie hasn't added those films to his personal DVD cult collection?
Turning Wright loose on Scott Pilgrim is perfect casting. The task requires that Scott's position as hero of his own life, and his career as a bass guitarist for the garage band Sex Bob-Omb (Beck provided the fabulous songs for the group, which includes Alison Pill, Mark Webber and Johnny Simmons), blend music, comics, manga, anime and video games into a seamless vehicle for storytelling. Wright also intuitively understands that age sets no limits on living inside your head. Look at Don Quixote. We've all been there. Plus, fantasy is liberating. Once Scott scores a victory in battle, his enemy dissolves into coins. With the help of the gifted cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2), Wright creates a visual wonderland that is literally a knockout.
Still, the pyrotechnics would be nothing but shameless showing off if Wright wasn't equally adept at building characters. When we first meet Scott, he is a Toronto twentysomething with one bad relationship behind him — Envy Adams (Brie Larson) did something worse than dump Scott, she became a rock star and kicked his heart in the ass. Scott has a new crush in the jealous Knives Chau (the wonderful Ellen Wong). That Knives is only 17 means Scott catches hell from his sister, Stacey (sassy Anna Kendrick), and his gay roommate, Wallace Wells (a sensational, scene-stealing Kieran Culkin). But it's only when Ramona Flowers (a terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enters the picture that Scott knows true passion. Ramona changes boyfriends more often than hair colors, but Scott will fight for her, to the death.
The seven exes range from a junior-high crush (Satya Bhabha) to the leader of the pack (Jason Schwartzman is comic gold as the ultimate rat bastard) with time for a movie action hero (Chris Evans), a power vegan (Brandon Routh), twins (Keita and Shota Saito) and even a girl (Mae Whitman). It's a character pileup, but Wright wrangles the killer cast with the skill of a world-class ringmaster. Scott Pilgrim is a breathless rush of a movie that jumps off the screen, spins your head around and then stealthily works its way into your heart. Don't worry too much about hugging and learning and stuff. Just revel in those clutter-free last moments when two people finally get enough of a grip on who they are to make an honest, human connection. It's a game-changer.