It finally happened. I got old. Not older, like when I would go to shows and be the ‘older’ guy in the crowd but still totally be part of the scene, or fake old, like when I get crotchety about High School Musical or some other tween sensation. Actually old. And I got old during Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist*. A movie centering around music and nightlife in New York City should be a movie that I can not only relate to, but ‘get’ in a specific way. While I recognized all the venues and all the streets and locations in the movie, I couldn’t name a song that plays on the soundtrack and don’t have an album by any band in the film. This movie is designed to be all about the hip Pitchfork Generation and I found myself befuddled.
Maybe part of the problem is that the movie isn’t that good. It’s not bad, but it never comes together as anything at all. There are nice scenes – a lipstick kiss being wiped off a windshield, a tracking shot along wires as Nick and Norah share their first intimate moment – and there are nice performances, especially by Michael Cera, but as a film it’s… nothing.
And I don’t mean nothing as a trifle, a piffle, a lark, a small story. I would like the film better if it were a tiny, intimate story about just these two people and the adventures they have as they search for that band (Where’s Fluffy, such a fake band name) and fall in love – sort of a less neurotic 21st century teen version of After Hours – but Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is stuffed with phony-feeling secondary characters who exist only to create problems that will stretch this story to feature length. No, the movie is nothing in the most specific terms; it’s a collection of scenes and moments that add up to absolutely zilch and leave you feeling nothing. In many ways it’s completely modern in that the movie is a patchwork of good scenes that are stitched together, like a feature film made from a diverting YouTube series.
The thing about this movie and feeling old is that I can’t tell if my dislike of much of the music comes from the bands – Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists, Bishop Allen – not being all that great or me just being a curmudgeon. Actually, dislike is a very strong term in that I found most of the music slid right off of my ears, like a lot of modern music seems to do. It all feels derivative of bands that were celebrated at the beginning of the decade for being derivative; instead of No Wave it sounds like No Third Wave. The music feels like the movie – a good hook here, a nice vocal there, but it’s all transient and gone before you’re done watching. And it all feels like something you’ve seen or heard done before, but better.
Michael Cera, though… I look at this performance as his dry run for Scott Pilgrim. Truth be told, I had serious reservations about Cera taking that role. The character is one that I love very dearly and I have very specific thoughts about who he is and what he’s like. Michael Cera, whose persona has always been that of a more than slightly awkward nerd, a guy who is smarter than everybody around him but sort of uncomfortable with that, a guy whose stumbling way with words charmingly disarms the potent bombs he can drop, plays somebody else here. He drops that Arrested Development/Superbad character and, while his delivery is similar, plays a guy with a lot more self-confidence and conviction. He’s not a tough guy or a stud, and he’s maybe a little on the emo side of things, but he’s not intimidated by everything and everyone around him. He’s more self-possessed. And he’s playing a guy in a band – seeing Cera in skinny jeans and holding a guitar makes for a good segue into Scott. Now if he can get that energy level up…
Kat Dennings is Norah, and we’re asked to do that movie thing where we accept that she is not the most beautiful girl on screen. My disbelief only goes so far, and it’s stretched to the max here as we’re told that Norah is not as pretty as Nick’s ex, played by Alexis Dziena under so much make-up that she looks like a 40 year old Massapequa bar hag. She should consider suing the filmmakers for making her look so consistently terrible, as she’s lovely in real life. Sadly, looks are all that Dennings has here, as she’s stiff and lifeless throughout. At first I thought it was her character’s too cool to care pose and then I realized that it’s just a bad case of underacting. Maybe she’s reacting to Cera’s minimalist style – I have only seen her in 40 Year Old Virgin, so can’t judge her fully as an actress – but if I were to say anything about her thespian chops in this film it would be, ‘Jesus, she’s looking good.’
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is the long-time coming follow-up from Raising Victor Vargas director Sollett. Sollett crafts scenes that are sometimes wonderful, and he captures the beauty of New York City after dark in a way that I haven’t seen on screen in a long time (this film made me, for the first time in a year of LA living, seriously homesick, even if this is such a movie version of New York that it feels even cleaner and less dangerous the real, currently homogenized thing), but he’s never able to find the heart of the movie. Sollett’s hamstrung by Rachel Cohn’s script, based on the novel by David Levithan, which doesn’t have much interesting to say about these kids or their world. Many of the best lines in the movie come out of Cera’s mouth, and I have to wonder how many of those he came up with himself.
Thinking back on the film I wonder if the problem isn’t that I’m too old for this movie but that the filmmakers were. There’s nothing, outside of the soundtrack, that screams right now to me in this film. Obviously a teen movie should be hitting universal aspects of being a teen – anyone who has ever been young should identify with the gist of it – but a movie that is almost crying out about how it’s about ‘today,’ about ‘now’ should have something more modern than just a casual acceptance of homosexuality and an iPod. I’d like to thank you all for listening to me as I worked out my early midlife crisis – it’s not me that’s out of touch with the modern world, it’s the music that’s boring and the movies that are empty.
*double ‘I Got Old’ points – I wondered how many people in the film’s target audience would get the Thin Man nod in the title.