Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Michael Cera and Kat Dennings prop up a wobbly Ari Graynor in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Nick & Norah’s
Infinite Playlist
Starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings. Directed by Peter Sollett. Written by Lorene Scarafia, based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novelette. Rated PG-13.
The Soundtrack of Our Love

You’ll shuffle joyfully through Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.


Michael Cera’s slight physique, diffident manner, and tiny high-pitched voice are pretty far from the traditional mold of romantic leads. However, to focus on these things is to ignore the his charming, unforced sweetness and immense comic skills — the sotto voce afterthoughts that leak out of him at the ends of scenes are funnier than the big punchlines delivered by most other actors.
What really makes him such a great romantic lead is the easy way he pairs up with other actors. His nervous hesitancy made him a natural foil to sarcastic, self-assured Ellen Page in Juno and brash, foul-mouthed Jonah Hill in Superbad. (Yes, I’m counting Cera and Hill in that movie as a couple.) In Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, he’s matched with the much more conventionally feminine Kat Dennings, and he brings out a playful side of this softly glowing actor. His ability to adapt to his leading lady will serve him well in the future. In the present, it helps make this movie a delight.
Cera and Dennings play the title characters in this movie based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s slim, highly readable novel that takes place over the course of a single night. Nick is a Hoboken high-schooler who’s the only heterosexual member of a queercore band that’s cool enough to be opening for Bishop Allen but uncool enough to be using a kids’ drum machine instead of a human drummer. Nick’s still moping a month after being dumped by his ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who attends a different school in a tonier exurb, but he rouses himself to play a gig in Manhattan, tempted by the prospect of catching a rare live performance afterwards by Where’s Fluffy?, his favorite band. His set that night is attended by both Tris and her classmate Norah, a music mogul’s music-loving daughter who’s also on the hunt for Where’s Fluffy?. When Tris goes into queen-bee mode and gives Norah crap about being dateless, Norah lies that she has a boyfriend and then makes out with a random guy. That happens to be Nick, which pops Tris’ balloon far better than Norah could have dreamed.
Screenwriter Lorene Scarafia plays up the novel’s farcical side, as Nick and Norah get separated and reunite while running around Manhattan and Brooklyn in the band’s van and Nick’s ancient yellow Yugo. Much of the running is occasioned by Norah’s wasted best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) after she escapes from the custody of Nick’s bandmates (Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron), who’ve volunteered to take her home. Norah’s protective relationship with Caroline carries almost as much emotional juice as the central romance, and her instinctive reaction when she realizes that Caroline’s flashing her underwear to a crowd of onlookers is touching (literally) and amusing. Playing a comic drunk is a relatively easy task, but Graynor plays this one with so much joy and verve that she brings a lot of life to this party.
This is the second film for New York-to-the-bone director Peter Sollett, following his excellent 2002 indie debut Raising Victor Vargas. He has a great feel for his characters’ youthful energy and the texture of New York. He doesn’t prettify the city – there’s a gloriously disgusting gag with Caroline losing her dinner, cell phone, and chewing gum into the same toilet. Whereas his first film confined itself to the Big Apple’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, here he preserves the novel’s Jewish feel. Observant Jews will relish Nick and Norah’s exchange about the concept of tikkun olam, while everyone else will note that Nick’s take on the idea gets him laid. The film is dotted with delectable cameos by John Cho, Seth Meyers, Devendra Banhart, and Jay Baruchel, the latter rewardingly cast as Norah’s douchey ex instead of the dorky losers he usually plays.
With all that, I wish the DELETE had made music more central to the story. Nick and Norah love the same bands and even hate the same band (a white-guy hip-hop outfit called Are You Randy?, which we see briefly), but we have to take their good taste pretty much on faith, especially since Where’s Fluffy? doesn’t exist in real life. It would have been good to hear them talk about what they love so much about music or maybe even to hear them perform like the couple in last year’s Irish musical Once, a masterpiece that betters this movie by just this little bit.
Composer/music supervisor Mark Mothersbaugh does fill the soundtrack with seemingly every band that’s hip right now: Vampire Weekend, Army Navy, The Real Tuesday Weld. You know what? Forget that. Hipness fades. Wit and warmth like this movie offers hold up much better over time, and now that Cameron Crowe is (sadly) no longer making movies about earnest young people who are passionate about life, love, and music, this is where the game is. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist ends with Nick summing up his evening and his future with his new girlfriend with the simple line, “This is it.” At that moment, you want to do what Norah does and leap into his arms.

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