Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is bound to get a lot of flak for being a Juno knockoff. But it’s actually based on a book by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn that I have avoided on principle since its publication in 1996. Though I love Levithan—how could you not love a guy who got his big break ghost-writing The Baby-sitters Club?—Playlist seemed too twee, too pandering to the indie kids who made The Perks of Being a Wallflower a hit. Now these charges are likely to be leveled at its big-screen adaptation.
But Playlist isn’t nearly as annoying as it could be, and believe me, I walked in expecting to be plenty annoyed. Though I consider myself a member of the Juno Appreciation Society, I’d read that Michael Cera’s Playlist character Nick would be “the only straight member of the queercore band the Jerk-Offs.” The idea of the only on-screen hetero immediately finding love raised my hackles. When will someone make a love story about those cool queer kids?
Well, Playlist does include a few nice moments between gay teen Dev (Rafi Gavron) and his boyfriend (Jonathan B. Wright), though the latter character is so underdeveloped we never even learn his real name. As the remaining member of the Jerk Offs, Aaron Yoo’s Tom is charm personified; he’s the most positive portrayal of a gay kid in the movies since, well, ever.
So I can’t object to Playlist for political reasons. But how is it, you know, dramatically? Well, Cera plays the same character he played in Juno and in the staggeringly overrated Superbad. Isn’t it dangerous for an actor to be typecast this young? And in the grand tradition of quirky Juno/Superbad boys, Cera’s Nick fails to appreciate the similarly quirky girl. Instead, he pines for Tris (Alexis Dziena), a shallow Queen Bee who wouldn’t give him a second glance in real life. As the film opens, Nick is stinging from their recent break-up and burning mix CDs to try to win her back.
Those CDs fall into the hands of Norah (Kat Dennings), Tris’s classmate and frenemy at a private girls’ school. Unlike John Cusack’s girlfriends in High Fidelity, Norah appreciates the mixes as the works of genius they are. But she doesn’t meet Nick until after a Jerk-Offs performance, when she asks him to be her “boyfriend for five minutes” as a way to impress Tris. When Tris explains that Nick is the creator of the beloved mix tapes…oh, you see where this going, don’t you? But as romantic-comedy cute moments go, Playlist’s is more inspired than most. The Nick/Norah/Tris triangle resembles the convoluted relationships that teens actually have, and the introduction of Tal, Norah’s “friend with benefits” (Jay Baruchel), feels refreshingly edgy for a PG-13 comedy.
Not so refreshing is the overt sexualizing of Tris, who appears in Nick’s fantasies bathed in soft light and wearing a blue teddy. Since the 24-year-old appears much younger (she’s playing a high schooler, after all), it’s more than a little creepy to see her vamping about like Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City. In a culture that cycled through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief over 12-year-old Miley Cyrus’s racy Vanity Fair photos, it will be interesting to see if outrage will be voiced on behalf of Alexis Dziena—who, while twice Cyrus’s age, is still young.
Another girl gone wild is Norah’s friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), who spends the majority of her screen time intoxicated. They say it’s difficult to portray a convincing drunk, and by this measure, TV veteran Graynor may be the most talented member of the cast. In fact, she makes me wonder what she could have done with the character of Norah. As the heroine, Kat Dennings is nicely deadpan, but the role is unlikely to do for her what Juno did for Ellen Page (or, to a lesser extent, for Cera).
In the end, this sweet little movie is simply too good-natured to inspire any feelings of ill will. And if this saga is ultimately just about rich kids and their problems (Norah has to decide whether to go to Brown or to work for her famous father—sigh), well, at least they show more humanity than the Gossip Girl crew. But as the credits rolled, I was still pondering the Juno question—or, more specifically, a conversation between Cera’s Paulie Bleeker and Ellen Page’s Juno. “You’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try,” she tells him. “I try really hard, actually,” he responds. So does Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and for the most part, that’s enough.