Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Director: Peter Sollett
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena, Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

On the surface Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is safe and vanilla, lazily chugging along to its predictable finale. Look closer though and you’ll see it’s actually a whole lot worse that that. What’s the point of watching a character go through the motions of a contrived script so he can discover what’s fairly obvious to us in the opening minutes? Maybe to remind us yet again that Michael Cera enjoys playing really awkward characters, a point made very abundantly clear in every scene. What a relief that Cera’s holding up the Arrested Development movie so he can star in junk like this. At worst I expected the movie to be a mildly entertaining diversion but it turns out it hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for how bad it is.

When it ended I came to the epiphany that this isn’t merely just a bad film, but one that reflects our times in the most negative way possible and represents the alarming direction pop culture has been going in lately. The “playlist” in question may as well be that of tween girls who love listening to Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers. They watch American Idol every week….and vote. Ryan Seacrest is their hero. And now this can be their movie, which is fine. They should enjoy it. But why does it have to pretend to be something deep?

If the film were upfront and honest about its goal to dispense disposable, cotton candy flavored entertainment it would still be a colossal failure, but its raw nerve in pretending to actually be meaningful makes it far worse. It’s so careful not to offend or challenge that it’s almost a perfect match for our politically correct era. And in desperately trying to please audiences of all genders, races, nationalities and religions with its cornball story and stereotypical characters, it pleases no one, especially me.

Earnest hipster Nick (Cera) is urged by his two best friends and bandmates to hit New York City in an effort to get his mind off of ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) and hopefully find their favorite band, Where’s Fluffy, who are playing a secret gig. It’s worth noting that Nick’s two friends (played by Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron) are gay (or rather gay stereotypes), if only because the film itself can’t seem to stop dwelling on that pointless information. By writing them as broad caricatures it comes off as if they offensively shoved the characters into the story to meet a gay best friend quota. Norah (Kat Dennings) ends up joining them on this adventure to search for her missing (and very drunk) pal, Caroline (Ari Graynor). I usually love movies that take place over one night and throw different characters together for the sake of an important mission. Maybe that’s why I found myself so turned off by this forced, contrived scenario involving important “clues” written on napkins and public restroom grossness.

Norah has harbored a secret crush on Nick for a while now, even though she knows him only through the mix CD’s Tris has thrown in the trash. They’re destined to be together, but Nick is a little slow to figure it out because he’s still distraught over being dumped by Tris. One of the film’s biggest failures is in convincing us that he and Tris could at any time have been a couple, or even dated. Another big mistake comes a few minutes later when we’re expected to believe Norah would be drooling over the gawky, socially inept Nick as he robotically performs onstage. Cera is most effective when his awkward tendencies are played for comic effect but here we’re supposed to believe those same qualities would have girls swooning like he was Brad Pitt. Say what you want about Juno, but at least it was never dumb enough to try that. Cera’s at his best when playing characters that stumble into situations or are out of their element. If this is any indication, romantic leading man roles are just not for him. His performance at times borders on being insufferable, though it’s hard to pinpoint a specific thing that makes it so. It’s more everything, from his delivery to his annoying, awkward (there’s that word again) pauses.

The choice of Cera for this role is worth examining though because it very much reflects a larger problem. It reeks of a choice made by a group of studio suits who thought his casting would appeal to the tween girl demographic, yet be just geeky enough so their boyfriends would tag along without complaint. Forget about whether he’s right for the part. It’s a safe and inoffensive decision. That’s all that matters.

Remember when teen movies were smart and appealed to all audiences? One came out not too long ago. It was called Charlie Bartlett and it co-starred Kat Dennings. Here though she’s just playing a watered down version of her far more interesting character in that film. The script makes little effort to give Norah a history or any reason for existing other than to fall in love with Nick and go through the motions of the contrived scenario. Dennings is a good actress (she more than held her own with Robert Downey Jr. in Bartlett) who will probably headline a great film someday but there’s only so much she can do with material this vacuous.

Seemingly out of nowhere the writers also thought it would be a good idea to make big deal out of the fact that Norah is Jewish and has a famous music executive as her father. At least the latter detail leads to the only decent, real-feeling scene in the film but the former earns its place about as well as Nick’s two gay best friends. I’m waiting for the day where we can have gay and Jewish characters in movies without the constant need for the filmmakers to point it out. That would be something to celebrate. It’s bad enough to litter the story with stereotypical characters but to then stick a label on them like “Gay” or “Jewish” is just plain offensive. Though by dwelling on it here it seems like I've fallen right into their trap, which just annoys me more.

Dzienza is playing an even dumber than usual “high school slut” stereotype, nearly identical to her annoying character from Fool’s Gold. I can’t think of anyone who saw that film who was clamoring for more of her. Ari Graynor (who looks about twice the age of her contemporaries in the film) isn’t funny, nor is her character’s drunken misadventures. They’re just disgusting and I found every second she was onscreen to be a repulsive experience. The only minor character who works is Norah’s ex-boyfriend, well played by a cast against type Jay Baruchel, but he’s not around enough to make any kind of impact.

Considering the title of the film is Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and unmemorable music seems to constantly be playing on the soundtrack, it doesn’t figure into the plot much at all. We’re supposed to believe these two are “musical soulmates” but other than a one-minute conversation in the car about the topic we’re not given any inkling as to what kind of music they love, why they love it and what it means to their lives.

I shudder even mentioning movies like Say Anything or Almost Famous in a review for this, but that does seem to be the tone Lorene Scafaria’s brain dead screenplay and Peter Sollett’s direction is going for. It really is trying to be a teenage version of Before Sunrise, which is what makes this so insulting. You either go all the way with something like that or you don’t attempt it at all. But this film wants to have its cake and eat it too, laughably believing it’s provoking real insight and introspection. The story is adapted from a popular young adult novel (by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) but that doesn't mean it had to be dumb. Hopefully it played out much better on paper because from all indications that’s where it should have stayed. The only thing infinite about Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist are the amount of problems with it.

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