Monday, 26 October 2009

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

What could have been a Lost in Translation for the iTunes crowd is wounded by the irritating insistence of modern romantic comedies to play out like thrillers, with bitchy ex-paramours to spurn and heroic acts of self-determination to make – which boils down here to hero Nick (Michael Cera) abandoning former girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) in downtown Manhattan on her own in the middle of the night. I call ungentlemanly and contrived on this, sir. And I sincerely doubt, even in these great post-Giuliani days, that club life in New York is quite so squeaky-clean as portrayed here.

Otherwise Nick and Norah’s a charming and vivacious stab at creating a young-hipster romance, achieving an elegant variety of contemporary teen comedy, laced with keen detail in the milieu and characters it portrays. It also sports that night-time odyssey structure I’m always a total sucker for: this one lands somewhere between the soft-pop of Adventures in Babysitting and the hard-core of Eyes Wide Shut (okay, far closer to the former than the latter), whilst referencing classic screwball, obviously invoking in its protagonists' names The Thin Man, as well as It Happened One Night, with more than a dash of American Graffiti. And yet the story is built around a gimmick pinched from that old episode of The Wonder Years where the characters spent all night trying to find the Rolling Stones gig.

The plot, such as it is, sees Nick, bass player for a queercore band, currently called The Jerk-Offs – Nick’s the straight one of the trio, lacking as they do a drummer of either orientation – and about to head off to college, suffering from a severely broken heart after the cheating Tris finally dumps him. His bandmates drag him out for a gig, and there’s the teasing promise of a performance sometime during the night by the legendary band Where’s Fluffy?, who never announce their gigs but leave clues around town to guide fans thither.

Which is pretty dumb marketing, if you ask me, but moving right along...Tris drags her useless new boyfriend to the gig, and two of Tris’s school friends also end up there: straight-laced Norah (Kat Dennings), and her boozy friend Caroline (Ari Graynor). Norah worships Nick unknowingly as the compiler of marvellous mix CDs which he’s been sending to Tris, who promptly throws them away. Taken with his gawky cool when finally meeting him, she tries to deflect Tris’s bitchiness by asking Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend for five minutes. Many shenanigans and misunderstandings intervene before their dawn-light departure from the city as a couple.

Playlist manages that tricky balancing act of making its two heroes both insanely cute, and yet also volatile and recognisably human, as Nick and Norah constantly trip over each-other’s hang-ups and anxieties in their teasing back-and-forth conversations, which are lithe and witty but thankfully not hammered into angular stylisation a la Juno. One particularly telling moment sees Nick decry accepting any particular label and Norah rolling her eyes in cliché of the statement, of which they’re both painfully aware. And yet Norah herself, a Jewish princess who’s the daughter of a famous recording studio owner (a fact that causes her more pain and embarrassment than anything else, although it does get her into clubs with speed), can't live up to her status, being often as awkward and malleable as she is smart-mouthed and spry. Flirtation alternates with argument and the clumsiness of two young people still trying to work themselves out is well-portrayed, and they consummate their attraction in a sequence that manages to be gorgeously erotic without showing a thing, as they make love in a recording studio, Norah's first actual orgasm registering on the sound bench's dials.

Cera seems to be a one-trick pony as an actor, but he’s still damnably likeable, and allowed to stretch his legs here with an effective characterisation, and the unbearably comely Dennings delivers a fine characterisation. Graynor has a lot of fun as Caroline, who spends most of the film stumbling around in an alcoholic daze, whether plucking her chewing gum out of the toilet and leaping up with a Christmas tree on her head during a gay revue.


Patrick said...

I saw this a few weeks ago and agree with most of your comments. If there was one element that may have been a bit off for me, it's not quite buying that the hot chick (Tris) would go for the dweeby Cera. Overall though, it was nice to see a sweet natured film about teenagers rather than the usual fare.

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, a good point Patrick, although I supposed she may have latched onto him because, being as he was in a band, she figured he was possibly good for a little status, only to realise that at least for the moment Nick and the Jerk-Offs weren't going anywhere. Considering that our only insight into the former relationship is Nick's deliberately blinkered recollection of her in lingerie - indicating that for him at least his obsession with Tris was more with the image and idea of being with her than the girl herself, whom everyone else detested - it's hard to tell. Possibly, as her relentless jealous flirtation with him through the film also indicated, she enjoyed that she could keep Nick wrapped around her little finger. She did seem the kind of narcissist who enjoys that.