Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Columbia/Mandate/Depth of Field, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a movie I wasn’t all that interested in, but I decided to take a gamble on it for two reasons. One was the obvious old-movie allusion in its title — to Nick and Nora Charles, the hard-drinking husband-and-wife detective team of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man and the six movies (and one TV series) MGM made based on the characters — and the other was that the star was Michael Cera, the male lead of the film Juno, and though Cera didn’t do all that much for me aesthetically (he’s very young and very twinky), he has a nondescript sort of cuteness that fits him for these sorts of roles: not so homely one can’t imagine him getting a girl to have sex with him, not so hot that we don’t think he’d have any trouble getting any girl he wanted to have sex with him. (And, quite frankly, I was hoping for at least one image of Cera that would be the equivalent of the marvelous one from Juno of his cock flapping around under the running shorts he was wearing, which the Juno heroine explained was what turned her on to him in the first place — and I wasn’t disappointed, even though the scene showed him in his underwear and didn’t last that long.)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a story about adolescence and the power of music to define one’s life and give one a template on how one should be managing one’s emotional, romantic and sexual issues. It’s also a quite charming (one doesn’t usually think of a modern-day youth movie as “charming,” but this one is) romantic comedy that uses, but gets a lot out of, the old convention of showing two people who we know from the get-go are made for each other and letting us share the chancy and often frustrating process by which they come to realize that. When it opens, Nick (Michael Cera) is using his phone, leaving a long, self-pitying phone message to his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who chose Nick’s birthday a few weeks before to make herself his ex-girlfriend. At the high school she attends he slips her a mix CD and she immediately pitches it into the nearest wastebasket — whereupon Norah (Kat Dennings) fishes it out of the trash: apparently she’s done this before because, though she doesn’t know who’s making the discs, she does like his musical taste and also the hand-drawn artwork he does on the sleeves.

The film revolves around Nick’s involvement in a band of his own — he’s in a group called The Jerk-Offs with Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron), and of the three of them he’s the only one who’s straight. What’s more, they sing about Gay sex — giving a lot of people the wrong idea about Nick (though, refreshingly, writer Lorene Scafaria, adapting a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levitan, does not push the gag of having Gay guys cruising Nick and refusing to believe him when he said he wasn’t Gay). They also haven’t been able to find a drummer — though their band van contains a full drum kit — and when they finally get a gig the other band members come up with a children’s toy drum machine and tell Nick to play it onstage as well as doing his guitar parts. They get a gig opening for a better-known band and make it through one song before Nick blows it by being unable to figure out how to turn off the drum machine when they’re done — every button he presses just changes the rhythm pattern but leaves the bloody thing on.

They also find out that that night in New York City, one of the rare live performances by the mysterious band Where’s Fluffy? is going to take place — Where’s Fluffy?, whose logo is a cartoon rabbit surrounded by question marks, is notorious for releasing their records on LP instead of CD (at least we only see LP’s, not CD’s, of them) and for staging all their live performances at hidden locations, with only enigmatic clues broadcast on radio giving their fans the information on how to find them. Needless to say, Where’s Fluffy? is the all-time favorite band of both Nick and Norah. Nick and Norah meet at Nick’s band’s gig, where she asks him to be her boyfriend for five minutes in order to pull a trick on Norah’s alcoholic friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) — at one point, when they lose Caroline and are traversing New York City trying to find her (the plot establishes that the principal characters live in New Jersey but do their club-hopping and partying in the Big Apple), Norah recalls, “You know how some people go to the same places to eat? Well, Caroline goes to the same places to throw up.” Nick and Norah instantly find themselves convenient cover — Tris has shown up at the Jerk-Offs’ gig and Norah’s sort-of boyfriend (she describes him as a “friend with benefits”) is the lead singer of the headline band — and they go driving off together in Nick’s Yugo (the writers’ idea seems to have been to give Nick the dorkiest car he could possibly drive, and a 1980’s-era Yugo seemed to fill the bill) when it works and ride in the van of Nick’s bandmates when it doesn’t, which is often.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is one of those movies where the overall atmosphere is more important than the plot, and the script is actually well constructed in putting its characters into predicaments just exaggerated enough from real-life ones to be both believable and funny. It’s also marvelously acted and directed by Peter Sollett with a welcome degree of restraint; for a modern-day youth comedy it’s refreshingly low on raunch, and even more surprisingly it doesn’t have that damnable post-modern sense of “cool” towards its characters that afflicts all too many current movies: we sympathize with the characters (it helps that there really isn’t a villain, though Tris comes close), understand their frailties and flaws and want to see them overcome them. It’s also well scored; Mark Mothersbaugh, the leader and principal songwriter of Devo, is credited with the music, though he seems to have come up with only the background score — I didn’t spot his credit on any of the actual songs — and, interestingly, most of the music (aside from the Jerk-Offs’ song, which is Gay-themed punk) runs towards the softer singer-songwriter end of rock.

There are some wonderful touches in the script, including having Caroline emerge from her alcoholic daze long enough to be the one who figures out the final clue to where Where’s Fluffy? is going to play (a radio D.J. barks out a series of numbers and she realizes that it’s an address) and having one of Nick’s bandmates go into a drunken rant about the Beatles and how great they were. At first I thought it was going to be a reference to the difficulty the Beatles had finding a drummer in their early days in Liverpool (at first they didn’t have one at all, then they went through three of them — Tommy Moore, Norman Chapman and Pete Best — before finally firing Best and hiring Ringo Starr just before they started recording for EMI and became stars), but it turns out that he’s become convinced that modern-day rock has become too overtly sexual (a weird rant indeed from someone who’s in a band that sings openly about men fucking other men and is considering such names as Shit Sandwich and A Fistful of Assholes!) and they need to go back to the relative innocence of songs about people holding hands.

There are a few tentative couplings and recouplings along the way — Tris comes back into Nick’s life and tries to vamp him (to, of all songs, the early-1970’s proto-disco hit “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate) until he gets disgusted, strands her and goes back to Norah — and in the end it turns out that not only is Norah the daughter of a rich father (as was Nora Charles in The Thin Man, the only actual parallel between the original character and her namesake), he happens to own the fabled Electric Lady Studios (built by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 — though he only got to do a handful of sessions there before he died — and later used by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other rock ’n’ roll royalty) and has offered her a job working there, though she’s undecided whether to take it or go to Brown University because she’s worried that she might lose her love for music if she’s involved with it professionally. Nick and Norah, in the film’s most lyrical scene, finally have sex together on a couch inside the hallowed halls of Electric Lady Studios, though we don’t see them; apparently she’s turned the tape machines on, because we see the level meters move as she moans in a signal that, though she’s not a virgin, she’s nonetheless having the first orgasm of her life: a rare bit of classic-era style indirection in a modern movie and a much sexier scene than it would have been if we’d seen them pounding away at each other, even though, reflecting on Michael Cera’s most famous role, I couldn’t help but joke, “You had your first orgasm — that’s the good news. The bad news is you’re going to end up pregnant.” Eventually Nick and Norah, along with the other principals, find the location of the Where’s Fluffy? concert — and Norah angrily breaks off with Tal when she finds out that he’s been dating her for three years only so he could get her to give his band’s demo CD to her dad, and Nick and Norah actually leave the venue before Where’s Fluffy? perform, deciding that what’s happened to them earlier in the evening is far more important than seeing the elusive band.

The ending was a bit disappointing, but I could see the logic of it — especially since it would have been virtually impossible for Mothersbaugh or anyone else connected with this movie to create a final song as awesome as we’ve been told Where’s Fluffy?’s music is. As things turn out, it’s the song for Randy (Jeremy Haines) of Are You Randy?, a lame band Where’s Fluffy? sometimes send out as a false lead, that sounds the most like Devo of any of the songs in the movie. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a marvelous film within the limits of its genre, a real charmer (there’s that word again!) that works on every level it attempts: as a romantic comedy, as a satire on the music scene (particularly the wanna-bes that inhabit its lower levels, dreaming of mega-stardom without the chops to pull it off) and as a nice little teen melodrama with that rarity in modern movies — characters we really care about and want to see prevail — and that even greater rarity in modern movies (especially those aimed at the youth market): a director and a screenwriter who trust the basic appeal of their story and don’t feel a need to drown it in music-video effects (an especially dangerous temptation in a film about modern popular music!), jarring cuts and tasteless gags about body functions.