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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Film's runaway brilliance presents a crazy-quilt fusion of pop culture

If director Edgar Wright's police comedy Hot Fuzz was a cop-com, and his slapstick zombie romance a rom-zom-com, what would you call Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? A gamer-rock-rom-comi-com? Scott Pilgrim's runaway brilliance presents a crazy-quilt fusion of pop culture forms, but comes on so strong that its cartoony frills may distract audiences from its surprisingly rich take on relationships.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World spins off from Bryan Lee O'Malley's series of graphic novels of the same name. Boyish, 22-year-old bassist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) plays in the Toronto garage band Sex Bob-omb and sort of dates their only fan, Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl Knives Chau (elfin Ellen Wong). Wright takes constant visual cues from O'Malley's manga-inspired comics and gives most scenes some kind of title or visible sound effect. The gimmick can be ingeniously creative, such as the bass solo that emits the letters "D-D-D-D," along with classic cartoony touches such as valentine hearts that float from kisses.

Much of Scott Pilgrim takes place against the backdrop of a big-city indie rock scene and affectionately parodies the music industry pecking order, from crappy clubs to exclusive after parties. In contrast to the emo soundtrack of Garden State and its ilk, Scott Pilgrim embraces a thrashy, energetic punk sound. During the opening credits, Knives watches Sex Bob-omb jam in a living room, and her sofa seems to rocket backward from the band, capturing the exhilaration of hearing and playing rock music.

Scott becomes tantalized by sexy but standoffish Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who's out of his league but seems to be a better match than underage Knives. Scott's tentative courtship with Ramona hits a snag due to intrusions from the League of Seven Evil Exes, all of whom Scott must defeat, in sequence, to win Ramona's hand. The self-important combatants include former Superman Brandon Routh, future Captain America Chris Evans and, as the ex from Ramona's bi-curious phase, Mae Whitman (who played opposite Cera on "Arrested Development' as dreary girlfriend Ann "Egg" Veal).

Whenever an ex confronts Scott, the film turns into elaborate video game-style fight scenes that closely emulate vintage arcade favorites like Mortal Kombat, not to mention the martial arts movies that inspired them. Skinny Scott and the jealous douchebags defy gravity, throw high-speed punches, slam through brick walls and wield weapons like Jedi masters. Numerical scores even burst in the air to announce an opponent's defeat.

Pencil-necked Cera makes a delightfully incongruous Ultimate Fighting Champion, even though Scott Pilgrim doesn't stop to explain those thrilling, super-powered interludes. The film doesn't have to — the chop-socky set pieces prove consistent with the heightened humor and pop-savvy sensibility of the rest of the film. Wright hurls so much at the audience that the director comes across as a master gamer. You can practically see the filmmaker hunched over a screen, eyes darting, fingers flying over controllers, adrenalin and Jolt Cola coursing through his veins.

Yet Wright's own worst enemy might be himself. Scott Pilgrim showcases the effort of a visionary talent, but also tends to be restless, cluttered, overlong and overloaded with supporting players. He compresses so much information into every frame that he can step on his own deadpan jokes and character beats. It's like he wanted to deliver a film to make Trainspotting or Moulin Rouge look drab and stodgy.

Fortunately, the essential warmth of Cera, Winstead and Wong's performances and Scott Pilgrim's script prevail. The dialogue includes touching, insightful little lines such as, "Do you really see a future with this girl?" "Yeah. With jet packs," push past the extraneous material. Scott Pilgrim looks surprisingly like Woody Allen's Manhattan for a new generation. It even follows the same outline of a mousy hero romancing an adoring teenager before pursuing a more mature but more complicated woman.

Where the vast majority of recent Hollywood rom-coms never stop to examine the platitude that "love conquers all," Scott Pilgrim more deeply addresses the foibles of dating and relationships. How do you face a partner's romantic history like a grown-up? How do you respectfully break up with a person? Will romance fail if you compromise your personal integrity?

In between the comic book word balloons, punk rock rave-ups and video game kung fu brawls, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World explores relationship challenges with not only insight, but also practical advice. In Wright's game-rock-rom-comic-com, the "rom" turns out to be the strongest part of the equation.