Imagine a movie is like a mix tape, infinitely reworkable, and we're able to rewind and reconfigure scenes with the push of a pause or play button (I actually just did this exercise with my students, so I have the pop of cinema on the brain). What would you cut, and what would you save? How would you re-mix the colors and tones, the dialogue and the music, so the flash of flare that brushes against a rear car window could cast our lovers in an even prettier amber glow?
These were the questions I kept thinking about watching Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the 2008 indy-rom that veers between enchanting and interminable. There were so many things I enjoyed about the movie-- the lead performances by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, the texture of a midnight New York as seen through the eyes of precocious teens, a soundtrack that included Band Of Horses, The Submarines and Vampire Weekend--that it made me even more frustrated by those elements (like Peter Sollet's schizo directing and an occasionally overly twee script) that didn't flow. Sollet also directed the 2003 Sundance favorite Raising Victor Vargas, another film that felt caught between a love of gifted actors and a tiresome desire to squeeze them into misshapen narratives that feel soaked in an obsession with a mythical "authenticity" (one very nice scene in Playlist, set in a music studio, has its charms extinguished by a lengthy exchange about life and meaning whose adolescent meandering wouldn't have passed muster with Angela Chase).
There's a clear joy of performance generated between the actors in Playlist, and I kept wishing Sollet (working from a screenplay by Lorene Scafaria that in turn was adapted from a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) would let them cut loose a bit more, to follow what often feel like improvised bits. There are some lovely moments of observation, as when Nora's drunken friend Caroline (a charming Ari Graynor, wasted in an extraneous and grating subplot) can't quite unlock a car door, and a crowd gathers on the sidewalk to cheer her on. Cera is especially good in those scenes, as they allow his emo mumbling to have a real purpose-- he's voicing his thoughts as he's working them out, then using his comments as a jokey cover for his insecurities. I really enjoyed the scene that followed, too, as Nick and Norah discuss pop music, and the conversation awkwardly veers from geeky enthusiasm about bands to sudden questions about past lovers, to awkward silences and failed attempts to re-start the chit-chat. There's a delicate, verite quality to those moments, and the movie is at its best when it emphasizes the connections between love and pop, and how the latter (often painfully) shapes our notions about the former.
It makes you want to cut the songs about the goofy best friend and the jealous ex-girlfriend, and to tweak and re-order the songs about the gay bandmates (which are sweet even as the totter on the edge of stereotype, and deserve to be fleshed out a bit more). There's a great cinematic mix tape hidden in the hiss and the stop-and-start structure of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; it just needs a clever DJ to release its fairy-tale vision of New York, and make it dance.