Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a real charmer. It’s a story of teenagers who are in some ways older and more mature than their years would indicate, and yet dealing with the quintessential problems that define adolescence. The best teen movies serve as an emotional/social guide for the youthful audiences they’re aimed at, while possessing enough nostalgia to make the adults in the crowd nod in recognition. This one fits the bill on both counts.
Michael Cera plays Nick, a high school musician from Hoboken who has just been dumped by his girlfriend of six months, Tris (Alexis Dziena from Fool’s Gold). The brokenhearted Nick makes her a series of mix CDs to express his feelings, but she thoughtlessly tosses them in the trash can at her private school, where friend Norah (Kat Dennings) picks them up and swoons over the music.
To lift his spirits, Nick’s friends/fellow bandmates take him into New York City, where their favorite group, Where’s Fluffy, are scheduled to perform a secret concert. The trick is searching the city for clues about the show’s location. Also participating in the search is Norah and her drunk best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor). They all meet in a club, where Tris and her new boyfriend show up. Nick and Norah pretend to be dating in order to shake the snooty Tris out of their orbit. The attraction between them is real enough, though, and soon Nick’s friends are offering to take Caroline home so that their buddy can get to know this new – and seemingly more compatible – girl a little better. Nothing’s ever simple, of course, and as the search for Where’s Fluffy rolls on, they must also scour the city for Caroline, who escapes from the band van and roams around helpless. Before the night is over, they end up visiting a drag club, being accosted by winos, and eventually coming face-to-face with Norah’s on-again/off-again paramour Tal (Tropic Thunder’s Jay Baruschel).
There’s a lot to like about Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but I think what I like best is that it seems intent on avoiding the clichés of the meet-cute romance at every turn. Rather than being open to someone new, Nick is almost hopelessly hung up on Tris – so much so that he’s annoyingly blind to the soul mate in front of him. That part is routine, but what isn’t is Norah’s reaction to his torch-carrying. There’s a scene where he’s rambling on about Tris and she just rolls her eyes, her facial expression clearly saying, “Stop talking about that bee-yotch, you jerk.” At one point, she even decides his incessant pining may not be worth enduring, despite his good qualities. The film has little or none of the sticky-sweet sentimentality you’d expect from a teen romance. If anything, the story has a healthy skepticism about young love; it suggests that even teenagers today come with so much baggage that it’s a minor miracle when two people genuinely do connect. That baggage goes for Norah, too, because we can see that she’s simply settled for less by dating Tal in the first place.
Like last year’s brilliant Once, there is a love of music in the picture that fills in a lot of what the characters find themselves unable to say. For most of the night, Nick and Norah have trouble getting themselves in sync, but their shared passion for music (Where’s Fluffy in particular) draws them together. Norah can tell from the song selection on Nick’s mix CDs that he’s on the same emotional wavelength. The run-ins with Tris on this crazy night then serve to clue Nick in to the fact that any woman who doesn’t appreciate his taste could never appreciate him, by default. Because it’s rooted in the connection between music and the deepest parts of our souls, the romance in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist feels authentic. These kids discover each other not because the screenplay requires them to, but because there’s something real pulling them together.
Since music is so important to the story, it’s fitting that there’s a great alt-rock soundtrack to accompany it. Bands such as Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists, and Rogue Wave provide tunes. Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) has music playing almost constantly, and he inserts several montages of Nick and Norah patrolling the Manhattan streets in a dingy old Yugo. This is one of the little details the film gets most right. It really captures that feeling of running around the city late at night, great music blaring from the car stereo. Although I grew up in a small town, I remember how it felt to cruise on a weekend night with the windows rolled down and the volume turned up.
If you’ve ever had those kinds of freewheeling adventures in your own adolescence – or if you’re a teen having them now – you’ll identify with the spirit and the abundant humor of Nick and Norah. I was particularly amused by the names Nick and his buddies try to come up with for their band. (They’re initially called the Jerk-Offs but wonder if Ball Ache would be more or less appropriate.) The biggest laughs come courtesy of the drunken Caroline. There’s a running joke about her compulsive attachment to a piece of gum that culminates in one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. Hint: It involves a public restroom.
It’s with the stars that the movie most comes alive, though. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings are both terrific in their roles. Cera is a master minimalist, saying and doing as little as possible yet conveying worlds in his seeming outward passivity. Dennings (perhaps best known as the teen who clashed with Steve Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin) is a more extroverted performer, always projecting wisdom in motion. The different styles of the actors create a strong and usual chemistry. Again, look at the moment where Norah rolls her eyes. We believe that gesture because she’s detached enough to see what Nick can’t: that he analyzes everything to death. Often in romantic comedies, it is the male who’s more outward and the female who is more inward. That formula is shaken up here by the stellar casting, to good effect.
Admittedly, the plot of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is slight; it’s more character-driven than anything. I wish the script had followed up on some of the issues of race and class that it introduces but doesn’t capitalize on (i.e. Norah is wealthy and Nick is from a blue collar family; she’s Jewish and he’s gentile). We wouldn’t have needed to dwell on those things, but they would have strengthened an already compelling romance by emphasizing how different worlds can be blurred together via intense common bonds. Still, Nick & Norah is everything a teen movie should be: smart, hip, identifiable, and with a touch of sarcasm. During one of his Tris-inspired rants, Norah tells Nick, “I don’t want to be the goody bag at your pity party.” If that line makes you laugh or rings a bell of recognition, you’re totally going to “get” this film.
( out of four)
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including teen drinking, sexuality, language and crude behavior. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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