Sunday, May 10, 2009

Coming of Age in NYC: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" and "The Wackness"

I recently caught up with two movies on DVD that came out last year: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and The Wackness. Both of these flicks are about teenagers "coming of age" in NYC and, as a former teenager who came of age in this great metropolis, I obviously felt compelled to watch and critique them.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: Technically this is about teenagers from New Jersey but the movie takes place in NYC and is where the youg'uns "find" themselves so I think it counts. Anyway, Nick is a high school senior who loves, loves music and is in a band with a couple of gay guys called The Jerkoffs. He's just been dumped by his girlfriend who's a giant raging bitch but, like most dumb guys, he can't get over her. His ex goes to school with, and is frenemies with, Norah who is also a giant music geek. So one Friday night, just before Nick a
nd Norah graduate, Nick's band plays a gig at Arlene Grocery. Nick and Norah meet and, in an attempt prove to Nick's ex that he's over her, kisses Norah. After that, hilarity ensues: Nick, Norah, and the gay guys fail in their attempt to take Norah's drunk friend Caroline back to New Jersey, Nick's ex decides she wants to get back with him, and all the while they are trying to find out where a band called Where's Fluffy is playing (apparently this band is so cool and so good that their gigs aren't announced until the last minute and they always play at weird times and places). Needless to say, love and music triumph, as Nick and Norah realize they are the only two people cool enough to understand each other.

I REALLY wanted to like this movie. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist had the potential to be a great early 21st century, coming of age, NYC, hipster flick. Also, it clearly understands how important music is to some people and how growing up sucks. And it's a very affectionate love letter to downtown New York: the movies rushes from place to place, from Arlene's Grocery, to Gray's Papaya, to St Mark's Place, to Penn Station, to Brooklyn, to Veselka (easily my favorite East Village hangout). But the characters of Nick and Norah aren't really developed, I never come either to like or identify with them really. Micheal Cera from Juno and Arrested Development plays Nick and basically the movie doesn't give his character any complexity -- we're basically supposed to love him because he's cute, his character loves music, and we loved him in Juno. Someone named Kat Dennings plays Norah (I'm totally unfamiliar with her other work) and her character makes no sense: one moment she's a tough, smart, and resilient broad, the next she's a little wimp. Totally illogical. As for the story, it's hopelessly contrived. The whole "finding where Where's Fluffy is playing" is lame,
just an excuse to have the characters run around the city. And the ending is very dumb. So sadly, as much as I would love to tell people that this is a great coming of age in NYC flick, I can't.

The Wackness: Much better movie. It has its problems but in terms of story and character development, it's a quantum leap above Nick and Norah. So Luke (played by some kid named Josh Peck who I never heard of but he's really good) is a pot dealer. He's just graduated high school but his college plans are almost derailed when his parents go bankrupt. He has a shrink named Squires (brilliant performance by Ben Kingsley) who Luke pays with pot, and Squires is also the stepfather to a girl named Stephanie that Luke went to HS with and is in love with (Stephanie is played by Olivia Thirlby who played the best friend in Juno; she is an amazing actress). Anyway, it's the summer of 1994 and Luke has two missions: deal enough pot to pay for college and hook up with Stephanie. The only flaw in this plan is Squires, who becomes a bigger and bigger part of his life. Squires is basically going through a mental breakdown, his marriage to Stephanie's mother crumbling, and Luke begins to view him as the father he never had. Events and hijinks and misunderstandings ensue and, unlike the previous movie, The Wackness is totally unpredictable and has one of the weirdest and most strangely satisfying endings I've seen in a while. All ends well ... sorta.

The Wackness really moved me. Personally, I don't know how anyone who wasn't a teenager in NYC in 1994 can't appreciate it but, if you were one like me, you'll love it. This movie gets 1994 down PERFECTLY. I really felt like I was transported back to that time, when teenagers still thought they were cool by drinking Zima and sporting beepers, and Giuliani had just taken office (you may recall my previous blog posts on remembering the cultural impact of 1994 that we still feel today). The only big problem I had with this flick is in the character of Luke: on the one hand, he's this brilliant pot dealer (never gets caught) but at the same time he's a total loser with girls (until Stephanie). Here's the deal: if you're a drug dealer in NYC and you're smart enough to make a lot of money at it and not get caught, and even graduate high school in the process, then you are smart enough to know how to score chicks! Drug dealers have no problem getting laid! Women love hooking up with drug dealers! They friggin' offer themselves up to drug dealers! So I couldn't really buy this whole part of the movie. I realize the writer probably thought that this made Luke a more compelling character (hard nosed drug dealer, wimp with the ladies) but the logic left me cold. However, Josh Peck's performance is so wonderful that you forgive this and, with all the other great characters that populate this quirky flick, you give The Wackness a chance and, as character of Luke would say, roll with it. And Ben Kingsley is so incredible that it's worth seeing the movie for him alone.

Of course, if you want to see a much, MUCH darker coming of age in NYC movie, then watch Kids from 1995. It'll make you have a mental breakdown.

1 comment:

  1. I had mixed feelings. I never thought Ben Kingsley was right for the role and he ended up chewing too much scenery. The main character had a lot of heart but I, too, have a hard time picturing a drug dealer as hot as him having trouble getting laid.

    I also remember 1994 differently because I graduated college that year so my overall outlook was sunnier. I can see why those younger than me would relate better to the movie.

    Finally the hip hop was great but it didn't seem to fit the story in my eyes.


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