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Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Adapted from the popular novel of the same title by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is much better than the typical teen movie, floating above some of the genre’s usual limitations while falling prey to just a few of the others. Sadly, the characters bear no spiritual relation to the effortlessness and élan of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s more well known Nick and Nora, but the Charles family detectives were as grown up as Michael Cera’s Nick O’Leary and Kat Dennings’ Norah Silverberg are adolescent. Director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) makes the most of the storyline’s “American Graffiti”-esque odyssey, and the movie’s leads are clever and appealing.

Unfolding during the course of a magical NYC evening, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” establishes its musical pedigree with animated credits trumpeting some of the flavors-of-the-moment who grace the film’s soundtrack. Devendra Banhart and Bishop Allen provide tunes and appear onscreen. Band of Horses, Vampire Weekend, Tapes ‘n Tapes and the Real Tuesday Weld join many other artists with varying degrees of Pitchfork Media acceptability. Most of the music is well chosen, and only time will tell whether the soundtrack will take on the kind of cult status enjoyed by the groupings of songs in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Movies that incorporate rock music or rock musicians as part of the plot more often than not come off as utterly phony, and it is difficult to buy the cast’s enthusiasm for tracking down a secret gig by the elusive and too-cool-for-mere-mortals Where’s Fluffy, a fictional group beloved by the film’s in-the-know hipsters. While Where’s Fluffy remains unheard for the duration of the film, Nick’s band the Jerk-Offs does play, and there is something endearing about Cera as the only straight boy in the group. Cera repeats the geeky earnestness he perfected during the run of “Arrested Development” and then later in “Juno” and “Superbad,” but he is so good at it, most viewers won’t mind.

Along with Cera, Dennings is the main attraction, and both performers manage to flesh out somewhat thinly written characters. The supporting players, almost across the board, scarcely register as recognizable human beings, reduced instead to the stereotypes of the bitchy, selfish princess, the drug and alcohol-fueled party girl, and the extroverted homosexual pal. Possibly to maintain some level of Big Apple credibility, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” acknowledges, at least in passing, a rainbow of signifiers and identifiers for the variety of mostly privileged kids who pass through the scenes.

Despite an amplified orgasm that takes place at the storied Electric Lady recording studio, Sollett maintains a chaste romanticism throughout the film. The characters talk frankly about sex, but the film keeps its distance from the raunchiness that defined teen movies in the wake of “American Pie.” Some gross-out material, including a disgusting running gag about a piece of well-traveled chewing gum, feels a little forced. The good news is that the boy and girl falling for each other stuff, for all its familiarity, is warm, sweet, fun and wonderfully awkward.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/6/08.

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