So you’ve finally met a girl who seems cool. Outlook: positive…except that you can’t figure out how to suss out her level of nerdery without offending her or seeming even geekier than you are by running through every conceivable point of geekiness she might secretly have. Well, you’re in luck, because the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim has been made into a movie that could literally double as a girlfriend test if your interests and/or lifestyle require a girl who is at the least tolerant of the geek in you.
The first best thing about this movie as a litmus test is that it’s subtle. On the surface, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is an enjoyable, if slightly surreal, guy-friendly date movie. It’s about Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), who is beard-dating a high school girl—er, he’s 22—because he’s still not over his ex, until he meets Ramona, who might be The One. The only problem? Her seven evil exes, who must each be defeated in turn before he and Ramona can be together. So you can sell it to her as an alternative love story, get your popcorn, and sit back to see how she reacts to the plethora of cult references in the text of this movie.
The first one comes fast, as the Universal logo and theme are presented as if it were an early-90s Nintendo game. This also makes clear the demographic for these referents—the games are not the slick 3D Xbox games of today, but the Mario Brothers and the Street Fighters and the Zeldas that kids growing up in the 90s would have played—or, as in my case, watched friends’ older brothers play. And the TV shows that I picked up on have been off the air for years now.
The movie overall hearkens back to comics and the old superhero shows, with sound effects written on the screen for everything from telephones ringing (very comic-frame) to punch sound effects (Pow! Get him, Batman!), and before the fights the two opponents are shown with an old-school “vs.” in between them.
This seems a good place for my Caveat: The theater I was in had a lot of dudes in it—I was honestly surprised at that, because I kind of thought this was a guy-friendly chick flick not the other way around—and they found some of the scenes hilarious when there was nothing on the surface of the scene to make you (by “you” there I clearly mean “me”) laugh. I must, therefore, posit that these were moments of meta-humor that required familiarity with whatever was being referenced or spoofed in order to be funny.
The reason I assume that is everything I did pick up on. I think each fight is in the style of a different game with how the fight scenario progresses and the sound effects used. The only one I can identify for sure is Street Fighter (not sure which version, other than Nintendo from before like 1995). It’s possible the fights were all Street Fighter, since its backdrops were changeable…but then why did the Zelda whip and battle hammer come in when the ex was the “college experimental phase” lesbian, or why did the giant gorilla vs. dragon phantoms appear when Scott was having a battle of the bands duel with the twins she had dated next? So I feel like the fights were all different games, but like I alluded to above, I only watched friends’ brothers play these games, and this is reaching back almost 20 years now. (By the way, anyone who can point out to me which games were correlated to which scene, please call that out in comments—I want to know!)
The whole movie might itself be an analog to Super Mario Brothers, because eventually we find out that Ramona might be being held against her will by the seventh evil ex, making her the princess who is whisked away at the end of every level just when she appears to be safe at last. Certainly the intensity of the fights ratcheted up the way every boss was harder than the last one, and the defeated opponents’ bursting into coins seemed clearly meant to echo the ding of stomping goompas, or whatever those things were called.
Even if you weren’t into Nintendo games as a child, or you’re too young to have played these games that are so nostalgic to someone my age to my older brother’s age (late twenties to mid-thirties), there’s also pop culture references planted throughout, at least for certain cult productions. One scene is a blatant riff off Seinfeld, with Scott coming into his apartment to the iconic theme and coming in and out of a door to off-camera dramatically, the way every episode of that show has at least one scene of someone bursting into Jerry’s apartment. There was a sly quote from The Big Lebowski: “This is a league game” followed by a discussion of the rules inherent in league games. (No “This isn’t Nam,” though, to make it unambiguous.) And then there’s the Arrested Development references, which if they were all only included because George Michael Michael Cera was cast are that much funnier.
If I picked up on that many references, I’m sure there were just as many or more that I missed. I grew up under a rock (no TV, much less gaming system in my household), so I have no doubt there were parts of that movie I didn’t quite get. This certainty is based on the references I saw, and aside from that number are those times when everyone around me was cracking up at something that was only mildly amusing when you didn’t have another context for it than the movie itself.
So how would I define the Scott Pilgrim Girlfriend Test? Well, I wouldn’t. It’s something you have to decide for yourself. Say she comes out of the movie liking it, despite (or because of) its cartoon/game violence and surreal premise; well, that might be enough, if all you want is someone who’s cool with the fact that you game. Maybe you just need her to know Seinfeld or Arrested Development and prove some kind of pseudo-intellectual indie TV fanaticism to be a winner. Or maybe you need her to identify every one of the games like only a true gamer-girl would. Whatever your bar, this movie can probably tell you if she passes it. And it’s pretty damn entertaining in the process, so, hey, worst case scenario you save yourself from continuing to date some lame twit and you get a great movie. Win-win.
– originally published – 8/16/2010
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.