Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

“I don’t really subscribe to any label,” says Nick (Michael Cera) in advertisements for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. How cute. But would he agree that the label “high school movie” doesn’t apply to this film because its teenage lovebirds spend dusk-till-dawn looking to consummate their love—and thus their “adulthood”—at an indie-rock concert rather than a house party?

The avian 18-year-old would be emo if he weren’t straightedge; he’s the bassist for a gay rock band, The Jerk Offs, and still recovering from a break-up with a bitchy queen of his own, Tris (Alexis Dziena). Tris goes to a Jerk Offs show with her friends Caroline (Ari Graynor), a dipso, and Norah (Kat Dennings), a dyspeptic. The latter kisses Nick at random, and goes home with him in his Little Miss Sunshine-yellow Yugo—mainly to keep up the pretense that they’re dating so that Norah can snub Tris. But Nick’s fellow Jerk Offs tell Norah to give Nick a try; Tris has left him a mopey shell. She and Nick share a passion for the band Where’s Fluffy—which is to play at a mystery time and venue that they must follow clues to determine—and a need to locate Caroline, who’s drunkenly tripping across the five boroughs of New York. Their romantic vicissitudes are intermingled with their urban odyssey, and serenaded by a soundtrack that sounds as though it’s been selected from a Pitchfork Media best-of list.

There’s really nothing objectionable about Nick and Norah; it’s like a tenant who always pays on time, but looks to the floor as he passes you in the hall. The scriptwriter, Lorene Scafaria (who adapted Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel of the same name), provides some amusing dialogue that comes as freely from these teenage characters’ lips as puke does from Caroline’s. Peter Sollett, the director, has some witty touches, and is generally respectful of the actors—that is, except in some of Caroline’s drunk-girl escapades, to which the audience was most receptive. But the movie takes its setting and color scheme from Taxi Driver and gives them the soft-focus gauze of Disney’s Times Square. It’s a punk-scene pastoral: All the grit that makes New York appealing to indie-rockers is swept into the subway grates, parking is plentiful, and the City is like one big small town. While not nearly as cloying as Juno, Nick and Norah is also a square attempt to sell “counterculture” chic with any trace of subversion drained. Nothing roots these bourgeois scenesters to their scene except their salable taste in music, though the fine performances by the young cast (particularly Dennings) help one forget how redolent these characters are of the stockpile. Even the inclusion of homosexual band-mates (the good-natured Aaron Yoo, Jonathan B. Wright as a butch groupie, and Rafi Gavron with an ambiguously appealing curl to his lips) doesn’t change the formula much—the filmmakers have just multiplied the “gay best friend” by a factor of three.

However, one gets the impression that Sollett and company are people of talent who were given some material that could grow teeth, and were then forbidden to take a bite. It has the skeleton of family-friendly schlock, but the filmmakers’ honesty, intelligence, warmth, and clarity is worthy of approbation, even if the movie’s jagged bones betray its meaty milieu. Nick and Norah is salesmanship striving for sincerity, and professional enough that one can bear the conventional ending, and almost accept that Nick was in love with that Molly Ringwald-dominatrix Tris. I left the theater feeling a flaky happiness, but it was the kind of mood that fizzles away like bubbles when you open a bottle of pop.

There really isn’t much more to say about this sleepy-hipster Superbad other than, “Wake up, Michael Cera!” He’s found a nifty niche: By not acting “hip”—but simply, sweetly likable—he’s become the hippest major male star working today. (Perhaps the makers of his two most recent projects can take a cue from that discrepancy.) His stature is analogous to that of Dustin Hoffman before Hoffman’s post-Graduate work; but Cera’s coming off his third starring role, and starting to coast on his increasingly introverted charm. If he doesn’t start to season his shtick, he’ll end up a fad. His infinite playlist needs some new tunes.

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Burn After Reading

In No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers declaimed that the sky was falling, and used allegorical constructs to bolster their assertion. In their new film, Burn After Reading, they’re dealing with human characters, and look upon the sinking sky with a shrug, as if to say: “Who cares? It’s just caving in on morons.” And, just as I admired No Country for its craftsmanship but couldn’t accept its apocalypticism, I laughed through Burn, but left needing an antacid to salve its misanthropic aftertaste.

At a svelte 97 minutes, the movie runs like a lightweight imitation of the Coen canon: first-time offenders commit a modest crime, and it metastasizes into an ordeal big enough to swallow an ensemble cast. And the Coens have assembled quite a cast: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and—what the hell—Brad Pitt. The latter is a particular asset. His character, Chad, and McDormand’s Linda, are the cloddish fitness instructors who find the memoirs of a former C.I.A. analyst, Osborne Cox (Malkovich), in their gym. Cox is—or flatters himself by thinking he is—the only sane person in a web of wackos. Malkovich’s bursts of rage are this blue-blood’s only defense mechanisms. The analyst is the only one aware of the absurdity of his situation, and thus the character the Coens are seeing through, so his breakdown has added comic resonance: a twinge of self-effacement. Cox has been laid off for bogus reasons, and his icicle of a wife (Swinton) is cheating on him with a meathead (Clooney) who’s cheating on her. What little control Cox exercises over his life is diminishing, so he’s in no mood to deal with opportunistic amateurs looking for him to cough up a so-called Good Samaritan tax in return for his manuscript. Linda is certain that her discovery will be remunerative enough to pay for cosmetic surgery she’s deluded herself into needing—so certain that when Cox refuses to pay her, she offers his document to the Russian embassy.

One can accept the movie’s viewpoint that Americans are a pack of dolts whose self-absorption gets them in over their heads because Pitt and McDormand play their roles without malice. These characters aren’t just punch lines, but people with drives that we can relate to in moments of self-reflection. Pitt, who used his star presence brilliantly to give credence to his Jesse James last year, achieves his effects by taking our expectations of him, and tossing them back at us like a hot potato. He probably hasn’t been able to cut this loose since 12 Monkeys, and the freedom has made him giddy. But the key is that his Chad isn’t a fitness fiend just so he can flex his biceps; Chad wants to have fun, think positive, and be a team-player. Likewise, Linda’s monomania about getting a tummy-tuck doesn’t extend to inhibiting her from crying when Chad goes missing. (McDormand—a.k.a. Mrs. Joel Coen—is proficient at tacky American accents. Linda’s bears resemblance to Sarah Palin’s. Coincidence?) These characters may be the emotional equivalents of babies, but at least they’re human babies. Their superior (Jenkins), however, is no toddler. His overtures to Linda never make it through her thick skull, but he’s willing to act selflessly for her, and that gives the film a touch of heart without weighing it down; we need someone we don’t feel condescending toward.

For most of the movie, the Coens expertly gallop through dildo jokes, chance encounters and hook-ups, sudden deaths, and endless complications. Their characters weave us through it, and at its best, Burn suggests the underappreciated 1975 farce Shampoo, with Clooney’s character resembling an Eastern-establishment version of the promiscuous Beverly Hills hairdresser that Warren Beatty played. The filmmakers likely wanted a reprieve from the heavy No Country—they’ve dropped their usual symbols and languorous tracking shots, and even went so far as to adopt a conventional, mock-action score (by Carter Burwell). But they deprive us of an ending, replacing it with the expository banter between C.I.A. agents (the chief of whom is played drolly by J.K. Simmons) who summarize all the off-screen action, and conclude that there’s nothing worth gleaning from this whole big mess. This is the Coens’ theme: all their plot machinery is meant to add up to nothing; the point is that it’s meaningless. They’ve dropped another weight on our laps.

The ad-hoc operatives function like the petty di ex machina that Shakespeare sometimes used ironically. But the Coens’ irony is shrill; they seem to be withholding one of their famously elaborate endings punitively. And with so many plot elements left up in the air, their stunted dénouement seems slovenly beyond the joke of its slovenliness. When members of the audience laugh at this postmodern insolence, one wonders how aware they are that the filmmakers have just slapped them across the cheeks. Do people really care so little for these characters that they’ll allow the film to annihilate them so snidely? The Coens have insulted both the audience and themselves.