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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

When you start to watch Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, you might experience a vague sense of déjà-vu. From the background music to the hand-drawn credits, something feels embarrassingly familiar about Peter Sollett’s second directorial effort. The quirky mise-en-scène and awkward opening phone call delivered by Nick (Michael Cera) to his ex’s voicemail calls to mind Cera’s other hit film, Juno; the whirlwind hijinx that follow equally invoke his more recent release, Superbad. And while all of these movies deliver laughs, their obvious overlap isn’t just distracting; it’s the major problem with today’s pseudo-indie genre.

Since 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State, Hollywood up-and-comers have been beside themselves rewriting the old boy-meets-girl narrative. Their objective – to include the flawed and fumbling among us in romantic story-telling – is a worthy one. But in the quest to dissemble the regular archetypes, a new and equally predictable set has taken root – an Emo Brat Pack of sorts. The unlikely hero is unlikely no longer, but quite familiar: he is stammering; he is fatally sincere; he is handsome but homely – he is Michael Cera.

In this latest reprisal of his signature role, Cera’s Nick, recently dumped and barely holding it together, meets Norah (Kat Dennings) at his band’s gig amid a clash of circumstances that cause them to leave together with friends in tow. Determined to see the title twosome hook up, Nick’s band mates, three gay hipsters, commit to bringing Norah’s inebriated pal home. But when rumors of a legendary band’s secret concert distract everyone, plans fall apart, and the scattered group embarks on a sleepless night of crossing paths and dodging disaster.

At first, Nick and Norah know nothing about each other except their shared taste in music, which she discovers from the mixes Nick made for his ungrateful and narcissistic ex, Tris (Alexis Dziena) – the obvious anti-Norah. Their common ground is emphasized as the night progresses, particularly by one running gag in which strangers mistake Nick’s beat up, bright yellow Yugo for a cab. His car, the literal and figurative vehicle driving the story, signifies the dilemma Nick and Norah share: they are all too often being misunderstood or straight-up used. And just as anonymous drunks push their way into the back seat and insist on being taxied around, needy exes and attention-whoring friends take advantage of the protagonists’ big hearts and willingness to accommodate. Their pairing together, we are meant to infer, is the first in which they might feel like equals.

Liberal ad lib helped these scenes achieve an authentic getting-to-know-you feel according to the stars, who met for the first time on the New York City set during the 2007 writers’ strike. “It didn’t really matter what we said,” explained Dennings, “because our characters were in the same situation as us.” Yet the characters, endearing though they are, fail to produce any remarkable chemistry, and one wonders if Sollett has at long last overestimated his audience’s sentimentality for forced flirting and general awkwardness.

If that is the case, it is the by-product of his prizing style over substance. The script’s concept is sufficiently fresh but the dialogue lacks spine, leaving the film to rely heavily on tangential elements like its trendy soundtrack, surprise cameos, and charming leads. And for striving so earnestly to capture a “real” teenage coming-of-age episode, it certainly proffers a slew of absurdities: that a van of male musicians (homosexuality notwithstanding) has a trunk of lacey bras to lend to dowdy Norah, that she would factor Nick into her college enrollment decision after an hour or so of acquaintance, or that superficial musings about Tikkun Olam would suffice as their foreplay.

As far as bringing a sweet and off-beat romance to mainstream theatres, NANIP is ultimately a success. The artfully delivered one-liners and supporting characters — both clichéd and refreshingly unexpected — will translate well to cult worship. “I don’t think the characters are like anyone else, and I don’t think this movie is like any movie before it,” insists Dennings. But as for ringing true? Not so much. A critical tension is missing from the teen romance premise, and that is the challenge of difficult relationship choices. When Nick’s band mates qualify Tris as “awful” and Norah as “awesome,” they aren’t being simplistic; they are summarizing the unstated assertion of the film – that some people are selfish and superficial, while others are soulful and giving, and you should get over the first kind and seek out the second. The obviousness of that moral falls painfully flat, having been done to death in every other teen classic. NANIP should have been a departure from such predecessors, but sadly it is not much more than a remix. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist hits theaters everywhere October 3.