Michael Cera first came to prominence as a result of his appearance in the mid-2000s TV sitcom Arrested Development, but since his breakthrough film roles in Superbad and Juno he has become somewhat typecast, and in recent years has been the go-to guy when an awkward, shy indie kid role needs to be filled. In this 2008 rom-com by Peter Sollett he plays aspiring musician Nick O’Leary, a quiet (straight) bass player from New Jersey in a queercore band who is recovering from a broken heart thanks to a chance meeting with kindred spirit Norah Silverberg (Kat Dennings, more recently seen in Marvel / Disney’s Thor blockbusters). Nick is one step removed from Juno‘s Paulie Bleeker, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Cera’s later starring roles in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Youth In Revolt, but in his defence the likeable actor does seem a natural fit for these characters, and recently he has shown a willingness to branch out by appearing in Sebastián Silva’s Chilean drug odyssey Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus. Still, it will presumably take him a few years to shake off the tag of ‘wet-noodle heartthrob’, a title bestowed upon him by The New York Times.
Based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel of the same name, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist aims to tap into the feeling of being young, free and single during an all-nighter in the city; in this case it’s a sanitized version of New York that has seemingly managed to expel all the crazies of all shapes and sizes and has replaced them with a uniform population of good looking, thin and utterly bland teenagers. (One of the most irritating aspects of this film is this distinct lack of variety in terms of the extras. Granted the story is based around a certain music scene, and music scenes do tend to come with a uniformity of clothes and haircuts, but at times Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist resembles an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 which has for some reason been set in the Big Apple. It’s a few years since I’ve been to New York, but does Greenwich Village actually look like this now? And The Bowery? Someone call Travis Bickle: he needs to drive some of the scum back into Manhattan, and quickly.)
Nick has been dumped by his previous girlfriend, the vapid and mean Tris (Alexis Dziena), and he meets her acquaintance Norah after his band The Jerk-Offs play at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side. Though he still pines for Tris and sends her expertly-crafted mix CDs, Nick spends several hours in Norah’s company while they try and locate her tedious and drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and attempt to discover the location of a secret gig by a popular band called ‘Where’s Fluffy?’ At first he is oblivious to Norah’s clear attraction to him, but eventually he forgets about his previous (unsuitable) girlfriend and realises that the right girl has been with him all night yada yada and, it must be added, blah blah blah.
Unfortunately that’s it in terms of the romance contained within the plot. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is about as straightforward as it gets, a simple recycling of those tried-and-tested outsider John Hughes flicks that first appeared 25 years earlier, and while the two leads have a degree of chemistry it’s hard to care much when the eventual outcome is so obvious and the entire plot is guessable within the first five minutes of the movie. Both have unsympathetic, irritating exes too, should you doubt for one moment that they will end up together, and though Nick is timid and Kat is stand-offish it’s clear throughout that neither of these personality traits will get in the way of their eventual union. And on the subject of those exes, has New York suddenly shrunk or something? The idea of the pair repeatedly bumping into their old partners in the course of one evening given all the venues in the city they are free to visit is laughable.
But what of the comedy? Cera can be very funny, but neither he nor the bubbly Dennings are required to do much comic acting here, and the two protagonists play it straight while the supporting actors goof around, principally Graynor and Nick’s fellow band members (played by Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron). It’s not really the fault of the cast that there aren’t any substantial laughs – the problem stems from the script – and these three members in particular try their best with the limited material, to their credit. Yet when the best moments revolve around a piece of chewing gum that has been fished out of a toilet bowl, a joke that the American Pie writers would reject as being way too lame, it’s difficult to think of any great, established comic actors who would be able to raise a laugh or three. What hope do these rookies have?
Neither of the two lead actors are really taxed, but it must be stated that they do perform adequately, and without them this might well have been a lot worse. Try as they might, though, Cera and Dennings can’t rescue the film with charisma alone, and ultimately Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist feels far too safe and calculating, a movie that fishes for a young, hipster audience with its musical references and actors but is far too slight to offer them anything once they’re hooked on the line. It lacks the verve and (slight) unpredictability of the following year’s achingly cool (500) Days Of Summer and, ultimately, neither character here is as memorable as those played by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in that superior hipster rom-com.
The attempts to be hip sometimes hit the mark, but cameos by the likes of singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and the band Bishop Allen feel gimmicky. Still, there is a good soundtrack, mostly chosen by Sollett, editor Myron Kerstein and music supervisor Linda Cohen, which features Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists and a few other New York-based acts as well as incidental music by Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo. Given the story and the locations used the music fits as well as you would expect.
Sollett’s repeated attempts to shoe-horn in locations like Katz’s Deli, the Electric Ladyland studios and the Mercury Lounge feel clunky, although when more widely-known places are used as a backdrop – Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, for example – it feels a lot more natural and there’s more of a sense of New York as a grimy, functioning hub, as opposed to a well-lit, clean and safe film set. Ultimately there’s none of the danger or the edge of a night on the tiles in the big, bad city to be found here, and eventually watching the teetotal pair drive around in the small hours from one venue to another becomes pretty boring. I’m no longer young enough to know what it’s like out there these days, but I don’t remember going out and being a teenage music fan ever being this dull. A nice couple of characters are the heart of this warm movie, but there’s nothing else to see here.
Directed by: Peter Sollett
Written by: Lorene Scafaria, Rachel Cohn, David Levithan
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings
Running Time: 90 minutes