The autumn harvest has brought us a crop of worm ridden apples : “Lakeview Terrace,” “Eagle Eye,” “Bangkok Dangerous.” The art cinemas have shown a lot of low hanging fruit: “Flash of Genius,” “The Duchess,” “What Just Happened,” mostly main stream also rans that weren’t going to cut it in the suburban multiplexes. There isn’t a single title that’s really captured the public’s imagination, except for maybe “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”
But at the same time our plates have been filled with high drama. There’s the knock down drag ‘em out battle of the titans, Obama and McCain, the edge of your seat disaster movie about our economy, the nearly surreal farce starring Sarah Palin. These are the media events of the moment, against which the movies are poor competition. Why? On a case by case comparison they’re more compelling stories.
And while the movies may be little more than distractions from the main events of the moment, people are going. The audience has been showing up in modest numbers for derivative thrillers, “Eagle Eye,” predictable romance, “Nights in Rodanthe,” and comfort food comedies, the aforementioned “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” which will probably turn out to be the biggest hit of the fall, given that Disney didn’t have to pay very much for the animated title character. Still these are studio productions, and hardly bargains to make.
The real winners of early fall are a few low budget features aimed at specific demographics, like the horror movie “Quarantine,” Bill Maher’s religion bashing documentary, “Religulous,” and its polar opposite, the Christian themed drama “Fireproof.” These films have drawn audiences much larger than their costs, where “Righteous Kill,” with De Niro and Pacino, will barely return a third of their budgets, at least in theaters.
“The Women” is another example of a modestly budgeted production that found it’s audience. The powers that be at first balked at releasing this remake of a classic from 1939. Word was, critics were going to hate it, which was right. But women went to see it, and it’ll probably be profitable before it goes to DVD. Ironically, had it not been for the box office smash that was “Sex and the City,” “The Women,” might have been sent straight to cable.
My point is that currently, the movies are performing like a slew of scruffy cable channels. The Networks appear to be out of favor; narrowcasting is in.
Still another example; “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Play list.” Never heard of it? Well, your 15 year old daughter has. Budgeted at 10 million, the movie has grossed twice that in two weeks of release, and will probably gross 30 before a hugely successful video release, after which it will probably haunt TV forever.
“Nick and Norah” isn’t a great movie. Save for the requisite gross out jokes, (yes, vomiting is once again used for comic relief) and predictable car wrecks, it moves very slowly. For most of its running time the characters chase around late night Manhattan looking for a legendary band that plays hide and seek with its fans. The dialogue is sometimes insightful but more often labored. And yet the characters are lightning rounds for teenage aspirations and anxieties, remarkably divined from the ether of the moment. And for this, its creative team, and the novel they’ve mined, deserve credit.
Nick, (Michael Cera) is a middle class senior from Hoboken; a melancholic nerd/musician who pines after Tris, (Alexis Dzienza) a spoiled, prep school sexpot who thrives on refusing his affections. Norah, (Kat Denning,) a senior in the same prep school, and the daughter of a successful music entrepreneur, is similarly unlucky in love, but way better connected to the pop life they both thrive on. She comes from money, he drives the world’s oldest Yugo. They seem an unlikely match, but their taste in music makes them soul mates of sorts. As their Manhattan odyssey progresses, a clumsy and abrasive first meeting slowly turns into a mellow romance.
The casting doesn’t hurt. Michael Cera, who you may recall from “Juno,” and “Superbad,” is the reigning underdog of the moment. The camera loves his less is more style. Also he’s gifted with the sort of voice that adds just the right element of confidence to his retiring presence. Kat Denning, who played Robert Downey’s daughter in “Charlie Bartlett,” has huge eyes and lips, and a fleshy quality that could turn her into a major movie diva. In any case they’re both square pegs in round holes, which serves the movie well.
“Nick and Norah” has none of the bruising realism of “One,” or the sadly overlooked, “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” both of which are anchored by the unsentimental, almost casual heartbreak of every day life. “Kiss,” and “One” are graced with well honed irony. Also their misaligned lovers are older, but not necessarily wiser. “Nick and Norah” as middle class teenagers, are so far, happily shielded from the hard knocks of the world beyond their i-pods. Most of their experience of heart ache has been channeled from the music they’re constantly referencing. They’re knowing, but sunny. And that’s probably why they’re so attractive to the teenagers packing multiplexes to hang with them.