“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”
Setting out as a mockery of self-indulgence (but always ending up as a sophistry of solipsism), “indie” movies cast in provinciality the very counterculture which they seek to distinguish.
Through this inadvertent pigeonholing, the naked value of “independence” – as defined by the indie set – exposes itself as a caricatured derivation of all that it could’ve been.
The result, then, is an exaltation neither of culture (nor counterculture), but lazy, telegraphed irony.
Just as The New Yorker’s over-the-top attempt at Obama-maniacal satire fell flat under the heft of its own truth, so indie-ironic nihilism deflates from the pressure of its own forthright aplomb.
So it is that this month’s indie iteration reverberates with the formulaic echoes of the mainstream flicks that it seeks to malign.
“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” very good though it is, misses the mark it sets for itself. Stripped bare, it’s a boy-meets-girl story that obediently hits every target set forth by all those “boy-meets-girl” flics that have preceded it.
If boy-meets-girl is the typical Hollywood meme, boy-sweats-world is its indie counterpart. “Nick and Norah,” like most recent indie endeavors, does neither with novelty.
Actor Michael Cera, fresh from the set of the wistfully alternative “Juno,” portrays in painful predictability the awkward, world-weary teenager who pines over the breathy ingÃ©nue he can’t get.
So along comes Kat Dennings, raven-haired and ruby-lipped, as Cera’s misanthropic match.
But for the particular quirks of these characters, it’s impossible to tell that “Nick and Norah” even wants to be indie. These quirks have to do primarily with music, as do most of the indie ilk – and, ironically, it’s because of the music that “Nick and Norah” devolves into a complete clichÃ©.
The soundtrack is full of songs by bands you’ve never heard, and frankly never want to hear.
They’re all bare-bones and low-fi, almost a capella except for their woeful acoustic strums. It’s the kind of music that wants you to know that it’s telling a story, and indeed the story in “Nick and Norah” relies not only on the music itself but also on the idea of the music.
It’s music that propels the plot: Nick and Norah find each other (and themselves, naturally) as they comb the alleys of New York for alt band “Where’s Fluffy.”
This would make them total groupies, if it weren’t for the blaring implication that Where’s Fluffy is above the allure of acclaim. So, groupies they’re not, band-aids they are – the notion of which was snagged from fellow indie wannabe “Almost Famous.”
So central is the alt couture music to the movie that it eventually mocks itself for its own salute to stereotype.
If the music drives the story, Cera’s car steers it. A yellow Yugo, the car is, next to the music, the most salient feature of the movie’s indie adamancy.
The movie is determined to make an undeclared statement at every turn, and the Yugo, with its carefree wink and careless nod, must have seemed like the only car that would say something without saying anything. Instead, the Yugo comes off as a contrived prop – vintage glam and millennial apathy, in equal measure.
And so both the music and the Yugo, the latter chosen as a whisper of heterodox culture, end up as strident markers of the subtlety they’re meant to convey.
Set against this alt-obsessed backdrop are evermore uber-indie signifiers. There’s class-conscious disparity, prescribed isolationism, and proscribed heterogeneity. Set in the midst of New York chic, there’s of course and an ode to urbanity and a siege of suburbia – an assault of all that is regular and normal and planned.
And, surprisingly, it’s the New York skyline against which drums the movie’s only “indie” dimension. Perhaps the only time “Nick and Norah” resembles anything but bread-and-butter cinematic fare is when it explores Jewish-American identity. Here, the movie shimmers with subtlety.
Dennings plays the daughter of a rich exec – uncomfortable as the JAP she can’t help but be, yet blithe that extraordinary is a choice that’s hers to make. She isn’t quite sure what to make of her notoriety, at once embarrassed of and cavalier with her access to exclusivity.
The exclusive access doesn’t stop with the characters. Viewers are granted the odd backstage pass into the nooks of the dynamic between young Jews and Israeli sovereignty. Nestled in “Nick and Norah” are pointed slivers of that dynamic, cleverly culled as meta-Jewish jokes.
Keeping with the movie’s rare departure from typicality, Dennings’ dad isn’t the kind of executive you’d expect of a New York Jew. Playing on the movie’s thematics, he’s a storied music producer who, it’s obliquely clear, hasn’t been made tony by his affinity for tone. For once, the movie uses music to escape from the mainstream into the machiavellian.
Despite its random self-vindications, “Nick and Norah,” trotting the heels of “Juno,” “Garden State,” and “‘Napoleon Dynamite,” is set to join a cavalcade of movies which shun the category altogether, preferring haughtily to be a “film” but not minding the box office success that mainstream appeal brings.
Post-modernism, with its third-rate but first-class indie-pendence, is out.
What’s in is post-marvelism: Bleak in plot and place, censorious of society but emblematic of it, and enterprising in its micro budget and macro appeal.