Momma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Hipsters

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    In common NYC parlance, being called a hipster implies you’re a cynical and obnoxious indie devotee. With that in mind—and in the spirit of toothless gunk like Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (now out on DVD) and Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980)—comes Peter Sollett’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a romantic comedy for tweeners that tries to rehabilitate the term. While it would prefer to think of itself in the tradition of John Hughes, Nick and Norah is to hipsterism what Adler and Moyle’s films are to punk ideology—a posturing love story about, well, posturing.

    To get that hipster voice right, Nick and Norah errs on the side of caution and makes its protagonists’ superficial love of all things sarcastic and obvious its focus. Bumper sticker slogans define jittery, skinny jeans-wearing Nick (Michael Cera) and mix-tape-loving, hoody-clad Norah (Kat Dennings). They traipse about New York in search of Fluffy, their favorite band, who happen to be performing a secret show that night and Caroline (Ari Graynor), Norah’s obligatory drunk friend. Along the way, they head past the most clichéd of confirmed hipster hangouts, like the Bowery Ballroom, the Landmark Sunshine, Veselka and Alphabet City (only along Avenue A though, of course).

    This sort of condescending, reductive approach transforms Manhattan into a snow globe version of itself. Admittedly, this is nothing new to films set in New York, but it is especially distressing coming from Sollett, whose Raising Victor Vargas (2002) is light years away in its earnest and (dare I say it) authentic vision of the Lower East Side. Nick and Norah is more like Doug Liman’s Jumper in that it’s built on the premise that if you could go anywhere—or in this case, look anywhere—for someone, you would go to the most blatant spots for drinking, rocking out and puking. As Norah cleverly offers, “You know how people like to eat in the same places? Caroline likes to barf in the same places.” Hipster New York Monopoly, anyone?

    Still, while looking for authenticity in a film advertised as a Juno-esque romcom about hipsters seems pointless, it’s a futile but unavoidable pursuit when the film’s humor is so dismal. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel posits that the funniest thing to a scenester is the kind of anecdote that should end in heavy sighs, eye rolls and loud mutters of “Great story!” The plot thus breaks down into a string of episodes that revolve around unabashed schadenfreude, or nightlife scenarios according to America’s Funniest Home Videos. Watching Caroline barf into a Port Authority toilet and then fish her cell phone and abc gum out of said toilet may be painfully funny in real life but not when it’s in a movie where it’s supposed to be funny.

    That love of the short-attention span may, however, be the only explanation for the film’s protagonists’ iconic names—as Tal (Jay Baruchel), Norah’s ex, says about his band’s mix of Zionism and anarchy: “It’s, like, ironic.” While Nick and Norah are both sarcastic, Nick and Norah Charles they ain’t. They shield themselves with their emotional fragility and obviously not the smug but silky charms of witty banter that made William Powell and Myrna Loy’s power couple in The Thin Man so attractive. Unfortunately, Cera and Dennings’ pouting is obviously not clever or even jaded enough for their stale one-liners to sustain them as anything more than just walking scapegoats for the pretentious.

    Ostensibly, Nick and Norah sanctimoniously justifies its love of the fragmented and incomplete punch line by explaining Nick and Norah’s instant attraction in the same way. It relies on a sap-happy use of the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” where the pieces of the world are brought together for the sake of restoring unity, making the whiny adolescent lovers those pieces. Still, as a portrait of hipsters with a Disneyland level of authenticity, the preposterousness of that wishy-washy belief is the best joke in the film.