Friday, April 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #53: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Kat Dennings and Michael Cera star in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

I recently finished teaching a class on iconic cinema and iconic actors, such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, among many others. One of my lectures, the last of eight, was devoted to youth culture, examining the iconic nature of everything from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), to the films starring Saturday Night Live alumni – National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) – and, of course, the popular films of John HughesSixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985). The sleeper of the bunch however is the little known Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), a teen romantic comedy that is more authentic then Hughes’s contrived output (Sixteen Candles is a complete mess, actually). With its smart use of indie songs on the soundtrack, from the talented likes of Vampire Weekend and The National, and deft use of underground New York City locations, it’s a movie which packs an emotional, moving punch, albeit in a sweet, understated way.

Taking place over one significant night, though beginning during the day, it’s the story of lovelorn Nick Yidiaris (Michael Cera), who is still pining over Tris (Alexis Dziena), his ex who cheated on him but whom he still hopes to win back with the use of Mix CDs. Tris tosses them as soon as she receives them but Norah Silverberg (Kat Dennings) fishes them out of the garbage, little imagining that Nick will soon cross her path and affect her future – and love life – forever.

It seems a slight premise but Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which is nicely and crisply directed by Peter Sollet, runs with it, creating an indelible, memorable world of teenagers about to enter university, and the musical, accepting world they inhabit. Based on the novel of the same name by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and scripted by Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), the movie is bathed in music, from the songs played in the clubs, on the car stereo and on the self-made CDs which Norah, daughter of a music executive, is always being handed by would-be musical acts (that running joke is unnecessarily truncated as some of those clever scenes are deleted extras on the DVD of the movie). The film's soundtrack is one of the best in recent memory (I bought it immediately after seeing the film the first time). Unlike other unimaginative movies where the songs are used to comment, obviously, on the action, often a lazy cinematic device, the tunes actually help anchor the movie as a commentary on how important good music is to its inhabitants. The plot point that sets all this in motion, specifically Nick and Norah’s meeting, wherein she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for a bit (not necessarily a new wrinkle in romantic comedies but done very well in this movie and recently also used / borrowed / stolen for an important episode of TV’s How I Met Your Mother), is musical, too, as the teens and their friends attempt to discover the whereabouts of a seminal, iconic (fictional) band called Where’s Fluffy?, who are rumoured to be playing a secret concert somewhere in the New York City area, with clues planted by radio DJs guiding the group's many fans to the hidden destination.

Michael Cera, Ari Graynor, and Kat Dennings
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a nicely etched portrait of an era, one that differs considerably in many ways from the ‘teen’ movies that have come before. Gay characters, namely the other members of Nick's band The Jerk-Offs, are treated the same as the straight ones – it’s no big deal but it does force Nick when he encounters women to explain that he is not gay himself, but that’s done in a humorous, matter of fact manner and not a prejudicial one – indicative of how comfortable young people today are with what used to be called alternative sexualities. ("Fag" as an epithet is prevalent in many of Hughes’s movies – a realistic detail, no doubt, and one still used today, unfortunately, but also a visible remnant of a comparatively less tolerant age.) Norah’s Judaism, revealed in a lovely scene wherein she explains her belief in the religion’s concept of Tikkun Olam (Healing The World) as a way to do better for one’s fellow human beings, is non-stereotypical and also a nice rejoinder to all those WASP-y teen movies we’re used to. Even the fact that Nick and Norah are from different parts of New Jersey (Englewood for her, Hoboken for him), allows for some salient points about the ‘bridge and tunnel’ relationship between the densely populated state and iconic metropolis, where the excitement occurs. Even the presence of Caroline (Ari Graynor), Norah’s best friend, and alcoholic, hints at the troubles afflicting some teens, though it’s also soft-pedaled more than it should be. (There’s also a nice cameo by Jay Baruchel (The Trotsky, This is the End) as Norah’s arrogant friend with benefits.) But it’s Nick and Norah themselves who make this movie sing. They’re a perfect pair whom you root for to get together. Cera has been fine in lots of movies, good (Superbad, Juno) and bad (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) but he’s never displayed as vulnerable a persona as here. (He`s also likely the only person in the Manhattan area who drives a Yugo, the unlikely East European car which is always mistaken for a cab, a situation which lads to a few very funny scenes in the movie.) It’s quite appealing as is Denning’s equally sensitive character and performance. (It’s too bad she’s since anchored herself to the crass, stereotypical CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls as it limits her considerably.) The rest of the cast from Dziena’s manipulative Tris, who still wants Nick to chase her even as she chases another to Graynor’s sad Caroline – reverberate, as well. More could have been done, however, with Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Ravi Gafron) as Nick’s band mates, who are not given enough screen time.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is one of those rare movies which, at 90 minutes, is too short; aside from the leads who are etched deeply enough, adding fifteen minutes or so to the mix would have allowed for greater character development for everyone else. It’s also not as amped up or frantic, in terms of the increasingly desperate hunt for Where’s Fluffy? which obsesses everyone we encounter in the movie, as it should have been. But as a touching, believable love story, which takes a realistic amount of time to gel, it’s stellar and unforgettable, not a mean feat in a genre which often drops the ball in that regard. It`s a very good movie rather than a great one but, a film that, regardless, ought to be iconic in its own right.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema. He will be starting a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years, beginning on May 9 at Ryerson, and also giving two lectures on Jewish actors-filmmakers Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Barbara Streisand and Richard Benjamin on May 13 and May 20 at the Miles Nadal JCC.

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