I Don't Wanna Buy Anything Sold or Processed
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 3, 2008 | Comments ()
It makes sense that Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is based on a young adult novel. The angsty relationship hell the main characters put themselves through has that tinge of the epic that only high schoolers can convince themselves is real, and it’s also fiercely subdivided along lines of clique and taste. But it’s also too perfectly packaged, too neat, a story about youth for youth that takes place within an idenitifiably narrow band of scenesters in New York and is set to an earnestly hip soundtrack. Every film is unwittingly a snapshot of the culture of the time it was made, but Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is the ultimate tribute to the idea of shoegazing emo pop as savior, and of the mix CD and iPod playlist as the perfect window into a boy or girl’s soul. It doesn’t help that the story has been done better before, either, whether it’s films that delve into that whole “one crazy night” thing (Dazed & Confused) or the idea of musical therapy to exorcise romantic demons (High Fidelity). In fact, it’s almost like the film doesn’t even care that it mostly feels like a retread of other stories, as pleasant as it may be in re-creating their themes. It’s designed to feel fabricated, manufactured, like true love or enlightenment or whatever you’re looking for is only one song away.
Nick (Michael Cera) is a fairly prototypical high school hipster in New York who’s just been dumped by Tris (Alexis Dziena), a flighty and popular girl whose reasons for dating Nick in the first place are never made clear. Nick’s also the bassist for a band called The Jerk Offs, whose other members are Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron). The boys are getting tired of Nick’s depression, but he’s not. Nick, coping with his loss in a time-honored tradition, makes a series of heartfelt mixes for Tris with titles like “Road to Closure, Vol. 12,” but she tends to throw them away at school, where they’re picked up by Norah (Kat Dennings). Norah and Tris detest each other but are forced to interact because they’re both friends with Caroline (Ari Graynor).
Everyone runs into each other at a gig The Jerk Offs play at a local club. (One assumes it’s an all-ages kind of place, since these are after all supposed to be 17- or 18-year-olds, but then again Caroline does an extreme amount of drinking, so who knows what kind of club it is or how she got the booze.) Tris shows up with a new boy to screw with Nick’s head and to make fun of Norah just because, at which point Norah claims she’s got a boyfriend of her own before running up to Nick and asking him to pretend to be her guy for a few minutes. They kiss briefly, which sends Tris into a frenzy, at which point Norah figures out that her enemy’s ex is the same guy she’s been loving in the abstract because of his great taste in music.
Despite the potential for confusion, Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay, from David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s book, manages to succinctly set up the various quasi-relationships with relative ease. However, for some reason, a key moment in the book is inverted on screen: In the novel, it’s Nick who asks Norah to pretend to be his girlfriend so he can get back at Tris. But by reversing the gender roles of the moment, Scafaria and director Peter Sollett score a couple of easy points by making Nick seem less vengeful and also tapping in to the eternal fantasy of young boys that, for some reason, at some point, a beautiful woman will walk up to and just start kissing you. The move makes Norah somewhere between desperate and clever, sure, and it’s nice to have her be more than just a tool Nick (at first) uses to get back an old flame. But it still plays too much like an idea for a YA book about one wild night instead of something naturally occurring in the film’s universe, even one as helpful as this one.
The impetus for the wild night in question is Nick and Norah’s desire to see an indie band called Where’s Fluffy?, which is purportedly playing somewhere in New York that night and which has been known to cancel shows or have other bands go on its place, and to play sudden concerts without warning for the lucky ones who just happen to be at the right obscure club at the right time. (The band’s erratic performance schedule and location-hopping is admittedly a pretty blatant metaphor for the transience of relational happiness and the protagonists’ desire to find The One, but just go with it.) So, set up by their friends and pushed off into the night, they set out to find the band before getting pulled back into a few minor side adventures involving a missing and wildly drunk Caroline and Nick’s bandmates. The motivation is pretty thin, but the film’s better moments are the ones where Cera and Dennings — respectively 20 and 22 years old in real life — are allowed to engage in fumbling flirtations and progressively deeper explorations into what they want out of life and why they find themselves returning to cheating girlfriends and controlling boyfriends. The actors fully inhabit the roles and seem tailor-made to play these hyper-intelligent but completely confused kids who are just looking for someone else who wants to come in from the cold. Cera could basically do this thing in his sleep, but this is one of the first opportunities for Dennings to hold her own on screen for most of a film, and she does so with a sense of reality and warmth uncommon in young actors, male or female. When Norah and Nick wonder aloud why people stay together even when things suck, then realize that’s what their parents have been doing, you almost catch a glimpse of something smarter than you’d expect from a teen comedy.
Unfortunately, glimpses are all Sollett is willing to provide. Most of the film’s journey is a dull one, especially when the action shifts back to Caroline’s misadventures, which include vomiting in a toilet, dropping her cell phone into the vomit, dropping her chewing gum into the vomit, reaching into the vomit to get her phone, and reaching into the vomit to get her gum, which she then places back in her mouth in a moment that’s completely stupid and beneath this kind of character-based comedy. It’s no secret in a movie like this one that Nick and Norah will, on some level, carve out something meaningful together, but Sollett’s lifeless direction saps what little tension there could have been. (Norah is ostensibly torn about accepting a spot at Brown University in 12 hours or staying home to work, but this is glanced upon and never really confronted.) And when nothing is ever at risk, there’s no joy when things get rescued. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is ultimately too uninvolving to be anything else than a reminder of the story that could have taken shape. It lacks the raw edges of the age and people it claims to represent, and comes out feeling pre-packaged and branded. These kids are smarter than that.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.