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Oct 16/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (Movie); The Private Patient (Mystery)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Movie) written by Lorene Scafaria; based on the novel by Rachel Cohn; directed by Peter Sollett; starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena, Ari Graynor; with Aaron Yoo, Jay Baruchel, Rafi Gavron

Some buzz in the air made me think there might be something special about this movie. For the first twenty minutes, I couldn’t see what. Mostly, we had snarky girls from some private school acting as bitchy as they possibly could. A lot of contrived plotting added to the sense of unreality. Add in huge dollops of rock music that were not to my taste and you have a formula that will have me looking for the exit.

Except that something about a couple of performances began to interest me. First, there was Kat Dennings. Her character, Norah, had acquired a carapace of droll, laconic, bored, I’ve-seen-it-all-ness. And yet, somehow, Ms Dennings managed to hint that there was a spark of something else, a willingness to be excited, to be moved, to be impressed, to be funny, to be loved. And then I began to realize that, as the object of her secret yearnings, Michael Cera was perfect in the role of Nick: his tentative, under-stated niceness playing off her brazen, flippant in-your-face-ness.  When it comes to a romantic duo in comedy, we’re a long way here from Tracey and Hepburn, but Cera and Dennings dish up some charm that’s uniquely their own.

You may remember that we found that Mr. Cera was one of the best things in Juno (Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 8/07). But that was a relatively small role. With his wispy good looks, it might seem that there’s something precariously delicate or effete about his talent. So it’s good to see that he can bear the full brunt of the spotlight in a leading role. He has perfected one of the anti-heroes of our day: the polite, soft-spoken guy who seems somewhat nerdy and passive but isn’t really. He gets great comic effects with his deadpan delivery. When a slut (Alexis Dziena) who recently dumped him starts crawling all over him again, he mutters: "I’ve been getting kinda mixed messages from you lately."

Nick and Norah are thrown together for a night of driving around New York by two plot elements: they’re trying to rescue a drunk girlfriend of Norah’s who has disappeared and they’re searching, along with mobs of fans, for a favourite band that is playing at some undisclosed location. This gives the movie opportunity to have fun with lots of very contemporary aspects of the young people’s scene. Not least of which is the way they mangle the English language and yet, in the process, produce something that has a certain creative flair. Then there’s the mostly gay band, of which Nick is the only straight member, which makes for the gay humour that is practically de rigeur in movies these days.

And what movie about young people today would be believable without constant reliance on cell phones? One of the most ingenious instances of this is the time when Nick and Norah have become separated but she’s wearing his sweat shirt. When his cell phone rings, she digs into the pocket of the shirt and answers the phone. Turns out it’s Nick calling from a pay phone. In the process of pretending to leave a message for himself, he conveys some pretty important information to Norah.

Another great scene involves Nick’s rattletrap of a car, the deficiencies of which provide the movie’s running joke – or not running, as the case may be. A passionate young couple, mistaking the battered heap for a taxi, pile into the back seat, ordering Nick to drive them to a specific location. For Nick, it turns out to be easier to oblige than to dissuade them. He keeps driving, while he and Norah try to continue their conversation, without paying too much attention to the furious sex in the back seat.

As the drunk friend they’re searching for, Ari Graynor deserves special mention. Watching a drunk who’s supposed to be hilarious can get tiresome pretty fast and then disgusting. But Ms. Graynor makes the drunken antics funny as well as revolting, while also showing us something sweet and vulnerable in the character. This the rare drunk that you actually care about – although I couldn’t believe that any drunk could maintain a state of elation for as long as this girl is supposed to.

This movie would have received a very high rating from me except that something about it ultimately let me down. It could be that the ending felt a little anti-climactic. That could be because of an incident in a recording studio. (You’ll know what I mean when you see the movie.) After that scene, it seemed like the air had gone out of the balloon that was keeping the movie aloft. The suspense, the anticipation about the relationship had pretty well evaporated. I think the movie would have been better if it had ended on an inconclusive note, if it kept us guessing....and hoping.

Rating: C (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Private Patient (Mystery) by P.D. James, 2008

Given that celebrated author P.D. James is now in her late 80s, it would be heartening to be able to report that she is still turning out mysteries at the top of her form. But that would not be true, at least not on the basis of this book.

Still, some signs of Ms. James’ mastery of the genre come to light in this story about Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, who books herself into a private clinic for plastic surgery. The setting of the clinic – an old manor in the remote countryside – provides an ideal setting for skulduggery and Ms. James doesn’t disappoint on that score. As the good whodunnit writer must, she manages to concoct plausible motives for virtually all the murder suspects. She also knows how to hook the reader with obsessive poring over  details: At what time of night did you look out the window? Why did you get up at that point? Are you sure you saw something? Could you be mistaken?

Ms. James shows that she’s still capable of an interesting observation or an arresting thought. A character who finds that she cannot forgive a wrong done to her, nevertheless discovers that "it was possible not to cherish unforgiveness." A meeting between an estranged mother and daughter at the mother’s second wedding comes across with poignancy. When a young female detective is looking forward to a fireside chat with the investigative team, under Adam Dalgleish’s leadership, the sense of how much the camaraderie means to her comes through convincingly.

For the most part, though, the book feels like a lot of laborious story-telling in a somewhat shopworn fashion. It takes nearly a hundred pages of elaborate setup before we get to the first murder and the entry of star detective Adam Dalgleish. During that lengthy preamble, we get seven pages of supposed dialogue which, in effect, consists of nothing but exposition that introduces us to some sixteen characters we are going to have to keep track of.

Once the story proper gets rolling, instead of letting it tell itself, Ms. James seems to be trying too hard to pander to what she thinks we want in the way of narrative entertainment. The authorial voice intervenes too often with fusty, writer-ish touches. Descriptive passages are often over-written. For example, one nighttime scene depicts "an impenetrable and disorientating blackness...disconcerting hazards....the curdle of black and grey clouds....the darkness mysteriously iridescent." Another passage says that London on a Sunday morning: "...lies silently expectant, awaiting the visitation of a ghostly army, summoned by bells to worship old gods in their carefully preserved shrines."

Clichs of the genre pop up far too often. In more than one instance, someone’s knuckles turn white in a moment of tension. Over and over again, the portentous, the foreboding and the ominous note are sounded. A person who has received a disconcerting phone call stares at the receiver before putting it down – a gesture never made by people in real life but often by actors in lousy productions. We get a rustic gardener who conforms totally to the stereotype and a middle-aged paramour who, predictably, insists on her status as a "respectable woman". An assurred, self-confident social worker is, inevitably, likened to an authoritative school teacher.

Even Inspector Dalgleish doesn’t escape the author’s corny touches. A ridiculous conflict is set up between him and a key witness, just so that he can be seen to assert his punctilious rectitude. From his point of view, a corpse on a bed is referred to as a "dark horror". Fearful that a suspected suicide has killed herself by hanging, Dalgleish exclaims: "...please God, not that way." You have to ask: is this guy a professional cop or what? Clearly, the author’s mind is on what she thinks we readers need in the way of chills and thrills rather than on artistic truth.

Another trait that diminishes this book for me is the inclusion of extraneous material. We’re treated to some thousands of words about Adam Dalgleish’s love life and his impending marriage. The amorous affairs of his assistant Kate Miskin come in for some juicy reporting too. We also get three or four pages of entirely unnecessary and irrelevant background about Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith. Even the rape of a lesbian friend of Dalgleish’s fiance is introduced. None of these elements has anything to do with the main plot.

In these respects, the book seems to be imitating the current trend in tv series, whereby details about the private lives of the main characters are doled out weekly, even though such tidbits have no bearing on the outcome of the main story. Maybe readers of Ms. James’ novels starring Adam Dalgleish and his team are meant to take pleasure in a similar unfolding of the characters’ inner lives. In my opinion, though, Ms. James has, by succumbing to the pervasive influence of tv culture, cheapened her books and robbed them of the powerful impact brought about by the taut writing exemplified in her best works.

In the end, though what matters most in a whodunnit is whether or not the solution to the mystery is clever. Does it satisfy that part of the brain that likes to see the pieces of a puzzle fit into place? This one passes that test – but without any distinction. The explanation of the murders, while somewhat far-fetched, isn’t overly complicated. But Adam Dalgleish seems to have very little to do with the final answer to the riddle. It more or less unravels around him. The explanation comes, in fact, in a suicide note in the form of a cassette tape. Then we get about thirty more pages of questioning and philosophical musing that seem to indicate that the author was aspiring to the significance of something along the lines of War and Peace. I like it better when whodunnits stick to the nitty-gritty and leave the profundity to the likes of Tolstoy.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com