“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.