And so the Michael Cera phenomenon has come home to roost. I was afraid of this. In the worthwhile but disappointing Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Cera replays, with minor modifications, the same schtick he honed in Arrested Development, Superbad and Juno. It’s still very funny, but it’s no longer productive, at least not here. Cera turns what could have been a moving story of young love and possibilities into a mildly amusing night-on-the-town comedy. Kind of like a more tepid Superbad.
I shouldn’t overstate the case against Nick & Norah, which is actually rather lovely. If we’re going to have a comic recycle his schtick, there are few I’d prefer to Cera, whose hesitant, awkwardly verbal stock character is one of the most reliably funny tropes in mainstream comedy today. It’s ironic that one of my biggest problems with the film is also, in a different way, one of its chief pleasures. Cera’s performance is responsible for some big, big laughs.
It’s also worth mentioning that Cera does make some subtle changes to his style that are gratifying to watch. Nick isn’t quite like the hapless virgin from Superbad or the perpetually wide-eyed father-to-be from Juno. The awkward silences are still there, but now they seem intentional, for effect, part of Nick’s appeal. Cera’s sheepish verbosity is no longer just fumbling around, or “trying words on for size” as one critic put it; now it resembles calculated humor disguised as unassuming frankness. When his ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) breaks the headrest of his car, she coyly jokes: “Look, your car misses me; it’s falling apart without me.” Nick’s response: “But you just did that.”
So that’s heartening — Cera’s signature style is becoming more nuanced. But Nick is still largely the same as his predecessors in the actor’s ouvre, and that means that he’s passive and, like Cera’s comedy, almost entirely reactive. The screenplay has to make a few changes from the book to accommodate this: it is no longer Nick who asks Norah to be his “five-minute girlfriend” to look good in front of Tris, for example, but the other way around. Nick doesn’t, in fact, do much of anything on his own. Instead of a story of Nick and Norah coming together over the course of an evening, it’s the story of Norah pulling and dragging herself toward Nick.
Norah is game — as is the lovely Kat Dennings, who plays her — but there’s nothing magical or even particularly compelling about the film once we realize that Norah is the only one with any self-determination. If it’s not a story of two people coming together, then it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill rom-com, with Nick as the “love interest.” And if that’s true, then most of it is a foregone conclusion.
Throughout Nick & Norah, you can see traces of what might have been: something wistful and bittersweet, a Before Sunrise for the new hipster set. But that takes two people, not one. Michael Cera needs to either truly branch out, or stick to projects where his style is appropriate. He makes Nick & Norah very funny, but he also robs it of the proactive, independent protagonist it needed.