Tragically Unhip

Michael Cera and Kat Dennings are fantastic in 'Nick and Norah'--but then there's the vomit-gum

Most movies are mostly mediocre. A few are largely awful with a few mediocre moments. A few mix greatness and mediocrity. And some combine mediocrity with a mixture of good and bad.

But Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is never mediocre: It's consistently excellent or awful. In one scene, Michael Cera is delivering lines with timing so precise that you could use him to correct an atomic clock, and in the next, there's a "comedy" bit wherein a woman fishes her gum out of a vomit-filled toilet and then puts it back in her mouth. I mean, why? Why?

The terrifying, toilet-recovered gum makes a series of appearances throughout the film, ruining otherwise charming sequences as you're reminded that the lovely young couple kissing on screen are also sharing used vomit-gum.

Really, on the strength of the vomit-gum alone, I could recommend that you not see this film, but if you think you can handle that, there are a few rewards here. Most notably, there's Cera, as Nick, who's better in this unfortunate vehicle than in anything else he's done, and that's saying a lot. He's in some ways reminiscent of a young Woody Allen, delivering dialogue with just the right stutter and pause to turn the line, "I never wash my pants," into a zinger of Shakespearean precision.

He's neatly backed up by Kat Dennings who, as Norah, doesn't try to match him in comic styling. Instead, she plays clunky and awkward adolescence with some real insight. The only problem, though, is that she's drop-dead gorgeous, which doesn't quite fit in with her character's romantic insecurity. Nonetheless, she largely pulls it off.

Some of the supporting cast is pretty decent as well, but more in a teen-comedy style--but without Cera and Dennings, Nick and Norah would be a full-on disaster. First, it tries really, really, really hard to be hip. Director Peter Sollett, who made the cloying and derivative Raising Victor Vargas, attempts to make himself appear relevant here by hiring every band that's ever been to Williamsburg.

Which would be fine, except that his main characters are New Jersey teenagers, and I just don't buy that they're listening exclusively to obscure indie rock that can only be heard at small New York City clubs. The film elides the question of how all these 17- and 18-year-olds are getting into 21-and-older venues in a city where bouncers would card Phyllis Diller, making their precocity in musical tastes seem really forced. I guess that's the new way, though, what with Juno paving the road for middle-age filmmakers who want to make movies about what they wish they were like in high school.

A big giveaway to the director's unhipness comes in the form of Nick's band. While they have all the external trappings of cool, their music sounds like the fake "punk" rock that used to appear on TV sitcoms in the '80s: some producer's idea of what kids are listening to, based on what he didn't listen to 17 years earlier.

But even excusing that, the overarching plot is so unhip that it gives away the artificiality of the kid's pseudo-personalities: Nick is sad because Tris (played by the incredibly annoying Alexis Dziena) has dumped him. But Tris' friend Norah has been falling in love with all the mix CDs that heartbroken Nick sends to Tris. Then, in a coincidence that makes John McCain's claims that he fully vetted Sarah Palin seem plausible, Norah starts making out with Nick without knowing who he is, and in full view of Tris.

Whatever; that's how romantic comedies work, I guess. Inevitably, Nick and Norah don't get along, and they argue and then are thrust together and then Nick meets up with Tris and then everyone goes to every tiny music club in New York and then the vomit-gum is swapped and then there's a sensitively filmed scene of a teenager providing manual stimulation to another teenager's genitals in order to produce a physiological response and then somebody gets punched and then everyone is happy.

Actually, the handjob scene is part of one of the odder elements of this film, in that not only are all of the teens sexually active; they have no qualms about this. It's not an issue in the film, and in fact, there's a higher-order issue about how good they are at sex. I don't think I've ever seen a teen-sex comedy where there was no moralizing about the sex, and the sex wasn't even played for laughs. The handjob sequence is supposed to be touching, and it fulfills an earlier moment of dialogue wherein one of the kids is accused of never having had an orgasm with another person, which is treated as some sort of deeply shameful crime.

So there's that. Casual teen sex, treated casually, vomit-gum, lots of hip bands, one band that was assembled for the movie which is so unhip (and yet is supposed to be hip) that it makes it clear how unhip the desperate-to-be-hip filmmakers are, lots of sharp delivery from Cera, a tired plot, a bleeding-edge soundtrack, vomit-gum, a decent performance from relative newcomer Dennings, a tired story about a guy who loves the bitchy girl when he should love the tenderly insecure girl, vomit-gum, and a scene where someone vomits and then reaches into a filthy public toilet that's full of vomit, fishes out some gum, and puts the gum back in her mouth.

And chews it.