Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: Play this baby!

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008) • View trailer for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity, sexual content, drinking and other bad behavior by teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.2.08
Buy DVD: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist • Buy Blu-Ray: Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Hollywood, forever trying to cannibalize past triumphs, often thinks this way:

In order to generate another teen-oriented hit, pair the hot young male lead (Michael Cera) from last year's Juno with the up-and-coming young female lead (Kat Dennings) from February's Charlie Bartlett — both of which were public and critical, teen-oriented successes — and voila ... another picture certain to draw that prized youthful demographic.
After Caroline (Ari Graynor, center) lives down to expectations by having way
too much to drink, it appears as though Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat
Dennings) won't have a chance to get to know each other after all. Fortunately,
Nick's friends ride to the rescue, although the results of their good intentions
turn the evening into an odyssey of Homeric proportions.

Sadly, that often isn't a winning recipe.

Happily, it is this time.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a charming, often hilarious and occasionally poignant misfit romantic comedy set in New York's world of late-night living and very loud live music. Toss in just enough gross-out comedy to leave an impression without becoming tiresome, and the result is as lively and engaging as the mix-CDs produced by Cera's woebegone Nick.

The poor guy can't get over being dumped by his shallow ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), and has taken "mental health days" away from high school in order to hibernate in his New Jersey bedroom while making a seemingly endless stream of mix-CDs to "commemorate" their break-up. These are ignored by Tris, who tosses each into the trash without a second glance ... an act of casual spitefulness that horrifies Norah (Dennings), who with best gal-pal Caroline (Ari Graynor) tolerates Tris as a frenemy.

One wonders why. The oh-so-hot Tris is a self-absorbed little witch who misses no opportunity to bad-mouth the plainer and quieter Norah, going so far as to suggest that Norah wouldn't even have any friends, were it not for her high-profile family connections (a secret left unrevealed for awhile).

Truth be told, Norah's too inherently kind to rip Tris' eyes out, particularly with good-time Caroline acting as peacemaker.

Besides, hanging out with Tris maintains Norah's access to these mix-CDs, which she adores; they seem to reflect the heart and mind of an unknown somebody who seems her ideal musical soulmate.

On this particular day, Nick is dragged away from self- indulgent moping by best buds and band mates Dev (Rafi Gavron) and Thom (Aaron Yoo) for a gig that night in the city. As the only straight member of The Jerk-Offs, Nick is something of an anomaly, but he certainly knows his music. And, reluctantly, he agrees to go.

The performance goes well enough, although it ends badly when Nick spots Tris in the audience with a new guy in tow. For her part, Tris has been hassling Norah over her apparently lack of a date (true), which she "proves" wrong by throwing her arms around the first halfway palatable guy she spots and giving him a wet one.

As chance would have it, she lip-locks with Nick. This amuses and then troubles Tris, when she sees the degree to which Nick reciprocates. Dev and Thom are delighted; as Nick's self-appointed guardians, they declare Norah a perfect match, and do their best to convince her of same (and Norah, one must observe, is a good sport when it comes to push-up bras).

The excitement mounts further with the news, which has been zipping about via text messages and mysterious announcements, that a way-cool band dubbed Where's Fluffy will give a "secret show" somewhere in Manhattan later that night. Happy coincidence: Both Nick and Norah adore the group.

But Norah has another problem: As usual, Caroline has gotten too drunk to be left on her own, and ordinarily this would mean the end of Norah's evening, as well. Dev and Thom volunteer to drive Caroline home, so that Nick and his shy — but spirited — new companion can take his rattling Yugo to the concert ... wherever it might be.

But since this is a teen-oriented answer to John Landis' darkly hilarious Into the Night, the 1985 cult fave that found Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer encountering all sorts of weirdoes in after-hours Los Angeles, nothing's gonna be that simple.

For openers, Dev and Thom manage to lose Caroline.

Then Nick and Norah decide they hate each other.

Lorene Scafaria's lively script is adapted from the 2006 novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, which gave Nick's band a name that would have guaranteed this film an R rating (which it probably deserves anyway). The movie's set-up isn't quite the same, but Scafaria and director Peter Sollett certainly catch the book's atmosphere and spirited, playfully smutty atmosphere; I'd have to say this film captures the degree to which music rules these young folks much the way 2000's High Fidelity worked similar magic with Nick Hornby's book, and its music-obsessed characters.

Cera won't be able to play a teen for much longer, but I can't fault his desire to ride the gravy train for as long as possible. He's quite persuasive as a melancholy misfit who's never entirely sure when somebody's yanking his chain. His sad eyes and slumping frame scream misery, but — as was the case with the character he played in Juno — Nick isn't a complete doormat. Given the opportunity, he'll do the right thing, and his heart's always in the right place.

Dennings' Norah has more social standing, but it's illusive, and that makes the role more complicated. Norah's never sure whether people hang out with her because they genuinely like her, or because of who her parents are; that adds a note of tragic uncertainty to Dennings' performance.

Certainly her current "friend with benefits" (Jay Baruchel, as Tal) seems an opportunistic cad, and Norah senses as much ... but being with a cad trumps being alone.

At least, it has until now.

Graynor is flat-out hilarious as Caroline, whose drunken second-act odyssey is worthy of Homer. Unable to figure out where the heck she has landed, and making her plight worse by the moment, Caroline wobbles her way from one chance encounter to the next, each one giving Graynor another chance to demonstrate great comic timing.

As for the fates suffered by her beloved cell phone and well-seasoned wad of chewing gum ... well, I don't advise seeing this film right after a heavy meal.

Gavron and Yoo are refreshingly well-rounded and self-satisfied gay characters; one couldn't imagine better mates at your back. And Dziena makes a sublimely scheming little beeyatch.

Music supervisor Linda Cohen built a wall-to-wall soundtrack of cuts from up-and-coming bands that need to look at home in New York's mainstream and underground nightclubs; the "playlist" — all-important as a means of charting the highs and lows of the title characters' fledgling relationship — includes tracks by Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Bishop Allen, Devendra Banhart, The Real Tuesday Weld, Shout Out Louds and We Are Scientists.

As producer Andrew Miano explained, they wanted "the best music you haven't heard before."

Cohen did a good job, and Sollett integrates the songs seamlessly with the on-screen action; I'm reminded of the master touch John Hughes had, when mixing music with his 1980s teen hits.

Everything builds to a deliciously perfect — if ironic — conclusion, which should send viewers out with broad grins ... precisely Miano's intention, since he grew up similarly charmed by movies such as Say Anything (still, some would say, the best picture John Cusack ever made).

Granted, adult supervision is absent — amazingly absent, actually — and all these kids behave badly: They binge-drink, indulge in casual sex and other cheerfully hedonistic pursuits that would prompt our Republican vice-presidential candidate to issue morality edicts. Parents who believe their teens are out of control will find plenty of ammunition here.

But they'd be missing the point. All that matters is whether our primary protagonists have the ability — the good sense and integrity — to rise above the crowd, and Cera and Dennings effortlessly win our hearts and minds. At the end of the day, as Thom explains to Nick, The Beatles had it right: It's all about wanting to hold somebody's hand.

And that, regardless of the senses-enhancing temptations of the moment, never will change.

No comments:

Post a Comment