Nick And Norah's Mediocre Playlist.

I think it was with "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" that the prevailing tide of opinion, at least in indie and alt-rock circles, turned against Michael Cera. Sure, there had been some complaints about his characters in "Superbad" and "Juno," that he was just recycling Arrested Development's George Michael character over and over. But you could still find some people to defend both of those movies, and plenty of people willing to defend the earlier "Garden State," in which the Michael Cera role is played by proto-Michael Cera Zach Braff. "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist," though, was greeted with derision in every place I read or heard people talking about it. Maybe the film found its audience in a younger cross-section of wide-eyed teenagers, or maybe it was just a flop; I haven't seen the numbers, so I don't know. But in the demographic group that was its target market, it seemed to be universally hated.

I didn't rush out and see it, so I didn't know the exact reason for all the hatred. But I could make an educated guess. These kind of accelerated nostalgia movies have been pretty popular lately, and the thing they do--selling a romanticized portrayal of who you are right now back to you--is a risky move. It's easy to go too precious (or maybe too silly) and make everyone want to barf ("Juno"'s mistake according to those who didn't like it). It's easy to go too mawkish and make everyone hate themselves for seeing themselves in the characters ("Garden State"'s tragic error). Walking the tightrope between the two, striking the right notes without overdoing it, is tough, and it doesn't seem like anyone from the indie-rock generation has quite done it yet.

The accusation I heard about "Nick And Norah" was that the characters were such dorky, wussy little indie rockers that everyone watching the film just wanted to shake them. Particularly Michael Cera--I kept hearing about how his character needed to "man up." Maybe this was what activated the masochistic streak in my brain, or maybe it was just that I had to see what it was about this movie that made everyone who saw it hate it so much. Regardless, the more I heard bad things about this movie, the more curious about it I got.

I wasn't going to go out of my way to see it, but I'm unemployed right now, and my Netflix account is still working, so I took advantage of the Watch Instantly feature and booted it up on my laptop tonight. And I was expecting downright horrible trash, which is probably why I found myself at least somewhat pleasantly surprised. It's really rare that movies, or any works of art, that people condemn as godawful are actually as bad as everyone says. Usually they're only mediocre, and when you're expecting awfulness, mediocrity can be a pleasant surprise. I'm not saying "Nick And Norah" was mediocre either, by the way. I didn't love it, or even like it all the way through, but my analysis of it is more complicated than that.

Let me warn you right off that I'm going to get spoilerific from here on in; I really have to if I want to make my points. There are a few twists in the movie's plot that I'm glad I didn't know about in advance, so if you want to watch this movie at some point, you might want to skip this review until you've done so.

OK, now that that's out of the way: "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" begins with separate introductions to our two titular characters. Nick (Michael Cera) plays in a band, currently called the Jerkoffs, in which he is the only non-gay member. He's been broken up with his last girlfriend for over a month and is still desperately pining for her. The ex-girlfriend, Tris, goes to school with Norah, and Norah has developed the habit of grabbing the mix CDs Nick makes for Tris out of the trash when Tris throws them away. This has made her curious about Nick, whose musical taste she really likes.

That evening, Nick's band has a gig opening for Bishop Allen. This is where my first big problem with this movie comes in. The setup for Nick, Nick's band, Norah, Norah's drunken best friend Caroline, and Tris to all end up at the club together is that the enigmatic but popular local band Where's Fluffy are playing a secret show somewhere in town that night, and they're all looking for the gig's location. The Where's Fluffy plot thread runs throughout the movie, and it's totally lame. This is supposed to be a somewhat realistic movie about indie kids, right? I guess that's questionable, since about 25% of it deviates dramatically from that template, but whatever, that's what it is most of the time. The Where's Fluffy thing, though, is a plot device out of some completely unrealistic 80s movie. It makes me think of "Empire Records" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and as much as I love both of those movies, "Nick And Norah" sets itself up as a different sort of movie, and the sort of plot threads that work well in 80s movies just seem unnatural and shoehorned in.

But whatever, everyone's at the club together, Norah and Nick meet and hit it off, and Tris gets jealous (even though she's there with a new boyfriend). This sets up the intrinsic conflict of the entire movie--the decision to move towards a new and interesting but uncertain possibility, or to try and stick with a previous love interest for a while longer even though it's not really working out. I think this is a great idea around which to structure a movie about teenagers/early-twentysomethings, and a lot of the things that happen in "Nick and Norah" could have happened in a really great movie about this exact concept. The problem here is that the execution is all wrong. I find myself liking most of the characters in the movie--though, truth to tell, Nick's passivity is a bit problematic and probably explains a lot of the grief Michael Cera got about this movie. I can't deny that the frustratingly weak-willed indie boy stereotype has a grain of truth in it, and even that some of the passive things Nick does in the movie ring true (though others definitely don't), but it's a frustrating experience to watch it go down. In a way, I feel like there's a perverse streak running through "Nick And Norah"; like the writers and director intended to create a certain amount of frustration with the characters in their audience. There's a lot more honesty in watching Nick and Norah be passive, refuse to take risks and act on their feelings, and visibly give up (as both characters do multiple times over the course of the movie) than there is in typical romantic comedies, where characters say and do the things that you only wish you would say or do in the same situations.

Again, the problem is execution. Every tiny little moment in which this movie extracts a grain of uncomfortable truth from a human interaction is immediately overwhelmed by half a dozen awkward, overdone bits that all pile overtop of the honest moment and drown it out. Sometimes this happens due to the filmmakers' attempts to throw jokes and comic relief into the film, which never works, and sometimes it's because they force some indie cliche or another and just end up with yet another out-of-place "Empire Records" moment. By the way, I was uncomfortable with how little distinction there seemed to be between the indie scene that was being portrayed and the totally mainstream attitudes and behaviors of many of the characters. I admit that I might just be showing my age, because it does seem like the indie scene circa 2009 is a lot more business-oriented and mainstream than it was when I first got involved. My feeling, though, was that the filmmakers got it wrong, and that made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief at points.

Things started to improve over the last quarter or so of the movie. There was about a 20 minute period in which Nick and Norah interacted by themselves instead of in a crowd, and for the first time in the entire movie, I got drawn in. I stopped wondering when the next stupid thing that would strain my suspension of disbelief was going to happen, and instead found myself caring about and relating to the characters. If the whole movie had been as well-done as this section was, it would have been quite good. Even this section was sort of invaded by the movie's regular detours into corniness, though. There was some sexual contact between Nick and Norah, and while I appreciated the directorial decision to focus on the musical equipment in the room rather than showing the sex scene, there were still hints back to obnoxious earlier dialogue about Norah's never having had an orgasm, which tarnished the scene a bit.

Based on talk I heard before seeing the movie, I had expected the whole thing to end without Nick and Norah getting together, and for the lack of connection between the two of them to be specifically Michael Cera's fault. There were points where it seemed like that's where things were going, and I wasn't happy about that, but in the end, Nick and Norah did hook up, and it seemed like the characters would start dating. Both of them took the risk and ditched their not-quite-exes, rather than staying locked into the cycle of someone not liking them but not wanting them to move on, either. Falling into that cycle is a common problem, more common than people like to admit, and it's good to see a movie at least trying to tackle these issues. A different movie, a better movie, would have done so a lot more successfully than "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist" did. As it is, "Nick And Norah" is a film in which two likeable characters, both of whom are uncomfortably lifelike at times, do their best to wade through a surfeit of implausible plot points. Their success is intermittent, at best. The same could be said for the entire movie.



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