I’m not certain I’ve ever seen Michael Cera act. Yet here he is: a bankable star, the only cast member of the great Arrested Development who could topline a wide-release comedy. Adept at stretching the boundaries of one persona, Cera marries the dorky appeal of a latter-day Corey with the comic timing and pleasant irony of Bob Newhart. He’s best when he doesn’t stray from this carefully constructed character, as he does at unfortunate times in his new picture, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Nick (Cera) is the only straight guy in a queercore band (a bit of an anachronism in 2008) and Norah (Kat Dennings) is the sort of indie-hipster chick who could only be considered a Plain Jane in Movieworld. They meet cute at a club when she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend to impress her high school rival, who turns out to be Nick’s vapid, vindictive ex Tris (Alexis Dziena). In fact, Norah’s been admiring Nick for quite some time based solely on the mixtapes that Tris has been discarding, a plot device borrowed from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan.
Their romance proceeds over the course of one evening, with what narrative there is hinging on a pair of equally useless MacGuffins. The couple pursues Norah’s drunk gal-pal (Ari Graynor), lost on the streets of New York, and the location of a rare concert by Where’s Fluffy, a band who don’t announce where they’re going to be performing until, like, minutes before the show.
Whatever. All this and a pair of mirror-image jealous-exes plots are basically a backdrop for some dumbed-down Before Sunrise mush between our leads. Cera periodically acts against type in these segments—he angrily calls Norah a “JAP,” at which point you could have heard a pin drop in the theater where I saw the film—and he’s not very good at playing “moody.” Dennings, on the other hand, finds some natural-seeming rhythms in Norah’s anxieties. When she meets up with her douchey ex (Jay Baruchel) at Crash Mansion (suitably, the douchiest place on earth), they delicately express the pain and mistrust of their open-ended breakup. The closest Cera musters in his similar situation is a mild dyspepsia.
The film might be best understood as a sort of period piece, a bizarro-world encapsulation of the aughts’ NYC indie scene as seen through the eyes of a handful of scenesters on the periphery. Sprawling over the course of one afternoon and very long night, it brings to mind the ambitions of George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Still, it’s not as good as either of those movies, not least because it lacks the insight assumed by time and distance. Dazed and Confused, with its pervasive, almost oppressive sense of anticipation, was a product of its own moment, requiring the Reagan-Bush era to put its loving reconstruction of ‘70s’ high schoolers’ existential restlessness in context.
Nick & Norah does get at something similar, though, and understands the speeded-up definition of “eras.” It appeals to its young target audience’s sensibilities as a kind of wish-fulfillment, a fantasy for suburban teenagers for whom a wacky adventure in the big city affirms there’s more to growing up than vinyl siding and getting a 401k. The film celebrates both itself and its fleeting moment (when a drunken girl triumphantly shouts, “I love New York!”, the scene is transcendent and delightfully cornpone). Openly soliciting a cult audience, it offers up Indiewood-reject gimmicks (Nick drives a Yugo, fer Christ’s sake), as well as some shrugworthy narrative intrigue built around the identity of Norah’s father, and tacky allusions to orgasm as a sign of “true love.” At its heart, Nick & Norah is a fairy tale, a collective delusion about the here and now.