Reviewed by Brian Orndorf
“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is based on the novel by Rachael Cohn and David Levithan, a fact that is constantly reinforced to the audience through the film’s near total absence of narrative consistency. A flighty, poppy dream factory posing as an articulate teen diversion, “Playlist” is caloric with whimsy but lacks distinctive dramatic weight, to a degree that it ceases to be a movie and transforms into something resembling a tiresome Diet Coke commercial.
Fresh from a gig with his band, Nick (Michael Cera) reluctantly spends a night in New York City with his friends, trying to get over his nasty break-up with spoiled brat Tris (Alexis Dziena). At the club, Nick runs into Norah (Kat Dennings), and the two spark up some chemistry, much to the impatience of Tris and Norah’s boozehound friend Caroline (Ari Graynor). When word of a popular band’s secret show hits the city, the ragtag posse hits the streets, losing Caroline and meeting up with Norah’s manipulative ex-boyfriend (Jay Baruchel, playing butch unconvincingly). While the night is chaotic and fraught with ill-timed confession, the connection between Nick and Norah is undeniable, giving both teens a chance to find companionship that suits their style.
There’s a preciousness to “Playlist” that’s distracting, and it’s hard to affix the blame to any single individual on the production team. This is not a terrible picture, but merely a lost one, aching to assume its place on the mantle of alternative teen cinema, becoming a voice of a generation. Only time will tell how far “Playlist” reaches culturally, but as an inviting story overflowing with intricate characterization and spotless attention to organic motivation? The film is a dud.
Director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) has a sympathetic eye toward late-night New York locations, arrives armed with a prepackaged soundtrack lined up with only the finest emo-alt-punk-whatever bands iTunes allows, and works with a cast of actors who could play nerdly disaffection in their sleep. “Playlist” has no shortage of credibility, but what’s missing is the graceful dance of the plot.
Rushing to stick in all the impulses of the source material, “Playlist” is a jumbled statement of affection. Sollett barely introduces his characters before we’re off to the races, careening around New York hipster watering holes that allow plenty of time for wacky coincidences and a sizable helping of misplaced gross-out humor. But where’s the warmth? Nick and Norah’s union should be the stuff of drowsy junior high folder illustrations, not clichéd expressions of the soul read off cue cards. Cera and Dennings are appealing, one-dimensional actors, but there’s no room for stillness between the characters that makes this romantic farce ingratiating. Instead the actors just spit out blunt exposition between vomit sight gags, while Mark Mothersbaugh’s obtrusive score underlines the tenderness. I never believed it for a second. Without any time set aside for the leads to logically bond, the film comes across as a sitcom, and a poor one at that.
“Playlist” feels incredibly rushed, leaving the movie unfinished and gimmicky. Plot threads with Norah’s lothario ex and his “Jewfire” band (to match the rest of the film’s unexplained fixation on Judaism), Nick’s inexplicably gay bandmates, and Tris’s cartoonish vixen laser beams add to the mounting storytelling muddle. I also wasn’t sure how the audience was supposed to accept Norah at first. The film suggests with particular malice that she’s a dowdy train wreck, yet Dennings seems incapable of playing unattractive. While “Playlist” isn’t impossible to sort out, it’s irredeemably thin in execution, coasting on puppy-eyed acts of kindness to blanket gaps in the script.
With coded mix CD poetic expressions, a love of music (that borders on icky “Juno” self-awareness), and Cera doing the one thing Cera can do (he’s not playing a character, he’s playing himself…again), “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is ready and willing to be loved in a superficial fashion. The gloss is appealing, but the heart has been drained of blood.