Upon its release last November David Ansen wrote of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, “If we must have teen movies, let them all be as sweet and seductive as (director Peter) Sollett’s smartly observed romance.” Ever since the heyday of Deanna Durbin and the Andy Hardy series featuring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (beginning in the late ‘30s) teens have been a presence in movies, if not as much on-screen during the Durbin/Hardy era, then certainly as a force at the box office. In the 1950s filmmakers, particularly exploitation filmmakers, filled drive-in double features with teenaged stars, rock and roll and, as often as not, a bug-eyed, seaweed–encrusted monster to throw into the mix as well. And so it was until the John Hughes era, which made (however briefly) marketable stars out of the likes of Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald and signaled the final phase in the juvenilization of the movies that had begun in earnest in the summer of 1977—now not only was Hollywood blatantly catering to the youth market, they had begun casting and making stars out of actors that were, for once, not visibly 10-20 years too old for their teenaged roles as well. So yes, Mr. Ansen, we apparently must have teen movies, just like we did when you and I were both of that age. But you're right-- damn few of them, it seems, have ever been, well, as sweet and seductive, as downright delicate at times, as is Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.
The movie opens on Nick (Superbad’s Michael Cera), bassist for a gay punk band called the Jerk-Offs, as he broods over the loss of his sexy/bitchy girlfriend Tris, who has dumped him in favor of a far more conventionally pretty jock type. Nick compulsively, incessantly sends mix CDs to Tris even after the breakup, mixes meant to signal to the audience his reverence for music and his edgy tastes as much as to provide artistic evidence of his bottomless yearning and anguish for his ex-girlfriend. Tris, however, doesn’t connect to the intentions of the CDs or, it seems, to Nick’s musical preferences. She blithely tosses them in the trash where they are immediately retrieved by a classmate, Nora (Kat Dennings), who wonders aloud why Tris would be so dismissive of someone whose taste in music is so unimpeachable, so much like Nora’s own. A night out to see Nick’s band at an East Village club provides the set-up for Nick and Nora’s inevitable meeting (though she is not immediately aware that he’s the compiler of Tris’s rejected CD collection), and the two eventually set out, with Nick’s bandmates and Nora’s increasingly inebriated pal Caroline (the wonderful Ari Graynor) in tow, in pursuit of the mystery location of a favorite band’s secret performance, all the while Nick’s pals settle into the role of matchmakers for the two hetero leads who seem so obviously suited to each other.
There is little suspense generated over whether or not Nick and Nora will eventually realize the degree to which they are mutually attracted, but then in a movie like this it’s almost always more about the journey to discovery than what happens when the couple in question finally gets there, and when that journey is rendered with the kind of believable, character-driven humor in evidence here audiences tend to forgive the obviousness of the narrative trajectory more easily than when they’re beaten into submission, as in, say, the average Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey rom-com. Michael Cera does romantic insecurity mixed with quizzical self-confidence better than anyone, no matter what age, so it’s a delight to see him, even if you might tend to wonder how many more of these kinds of roles he has in him before he becomes a Michael Cera type. The real happy surprises come from Graynor, who takes giddy drunkness to new heights—though she’s given the movie’s most uncharacteristically gross running gag surrounding the fate of an uber-resilient piece of chewing gum which goes to some awful places (think Trainspotting) and trades cuds with horrifying casualness—and, best of all, Kat Dennings’ Nora. Dennings' heavy-lidded, genial sexiness and apparently natural generosity as an actress—she seems alive to her initial conversations with Nick in a way that escapes more self-conscious young actors—accentuates her attractiveness, to Nick and to us and solidifies her status as an identifiable person rather than just another Ringwald-esque teen-movie stereotype. (It has been commented upon before that the movie notes with pleasing casualness Nora's Judaism and the rare quality of that religious/ethnic identification as being linked with on-screen sex appeal. In fact, a key moment of connection between the characters near the end of the film is set in motion by Nick's offhand reaction to an observation Nora makes about her religion.)
Fortunately, Sollett (the writer-director of 2002's Raising Victor Vargas) understands the value of not pushing his leads at a pace beyond their own natural ease, a sensitivity that coaxes a mix of sharp wit, edgy intelligence and a slightly decelerated approach to timing from Cera and Dennings that reads as comfort even when Nick and Nora are first getting to know one another, and Dennings, even more so than the relatively more familiar Cera, is the on-screen beneficiary. We want him to be with her so we can get to know her better, and the gentleness of their discovery of how much they enjoy each other’s company is a real treat. Nick and Nora has none of the aggressiveness or the jittery, mean-spirited cacophony of more typical teen fare. It’s also the anti-Juno, in that its characters are smart and articulate, but they’re not smart-asses all pitched at exactly the same degree of smug one-upsmanship and clever quipsterism. It’s a tribute to everyone involved—Sollett, Dennings and Cera, and the film’s screenwriter, Lorene Scafaria (from Rachel Cohn’s novel)—that when we find out why Nora seems to have such easy access to so many clubs around town the revelation successfully expands the character and the film’s central relationship rather than simply coming off as a cheap plot device. The movie makes a breezy style out of avoiding all the traps that far lesser movies (especially ones that win Oscars for their ostentatiously quirky screenplays) dive into head-first.
As Nick and Nora head toward the sun rising on their madcap night in pursuit of music and love you may wonder about that allusion conjured in the title to another kind of screwball movie romance from a bygone era. (You may also happily observe that this is the second terrific Michael Cera-starring comedy in as many years to end so sweetly on a moving escalator.) No, in terms of this modern-day comedy the ghosts of William Powell and Myrna Loy do not come into play, nor do the movies of The Thin Man series have any relevance here beyond a clever reference that will be meaningless to all but the most unusual of teens, ones even more unusual than the leads in this movie. The names just sound good together, as do Kat Dennings and Michael Cera and the happy melodies they make in tandem during this light, funny, and often lovely little movie.
At the end of a previous SLIFR professorial quiz the question was asked, "Is there a movie you love to the degree that should you discover it was not equally revered by your romantic partner you might reconsider the relationship?" Nick and Nora is, among other things, built around two kids for whom musical taste carries that kind of significance-- the presence of certain bands, and the exclusion of others, are signifiers of compatibility, of soul-mate status. What other movies do you think do justice, as I think this one does, to the experience of being a teenager in love, that best incorporates the importance of pop culture and defining one's own response to it as a character trait that might open, or keep closed, the door to romance?
Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and I heartily recommend you seek it out.