There are copious ways to link How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Both are based on feather-light books that take a good hour to read for those who scan slowly; both feature actors on the cult side of stardom who do far better work when left to their own devices; and both are being marketed as comedies, which will surprise anyone who actually sits through them. I could go on—and will below—but let me first mention the most glaring trait that binds these two films: They're utterly, maddeningly, almost willfully mediocre in every single way imaginable. To brand them as nothing more than would-be pilots for midseason replacements would belittle every failed TV show on which Jonathan Silverman's ever appeared.
Of course, to be disappointed, one must first have an expectation of being entertained—a fair enough prospect given the source material. How to Lose Friends was originally writer Toby Young's breezy, boldfaced recounting of how he failed, brazenly and spectacularly, during his brief tenure at Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair in the mid-1990s. Young, who'd edited a British magazine in which he published what he called "Low Culture for Highbrows," landed in Manhattan thinking that Carter would turn over the keys to the kingdom—New York City itself, a playground for celebrities and the journalists who keep them famous. But Young's arrogance proved his undoing: Though he believed he'd earned the right to behave like an asshole, he was nothing more than a hack hoping to sell out so that he no longer had to be one of those low-life writers with his nose pressed against the celebrities' polished windows.
In the film version, Young—now renamed Sidney Young and played by Simon Pegg—is reduced to little more than a barely functioning idiot, a cretin clad in a "Young, Dumb and Full of Come" T-shirt whose loutishness is outmatched only by his inability to function as a human being. Worse, the story's been turned into a romantic comedy, in which Simon woos his considerably smarter though no less self-absorbed superior, Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), who's fucking an editor (Danny Huston) who seems to be speaking in four different accents at once, none of them quite of the English variety. It plays like a made-for-CBS redo of The Devil Wears Prada, which was likewise set at a Manhattan glossy, but also happened to contain some of the most insightful observations about the perils of workplace success.
Director Robert Weide has, since 2004, proved himself a master at turning self-absorbed assholes into likable-enough assholes. Irritainment is his business, as evidenced by his run on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But at least Larry David is a well-intentioned fool; he doesn't mean to offend, whereas Sidney Young isn't worth redemption, never mind the laughable heart-strings finale that smacks of a dozen rewrites and even more reshoots.
Pegg deserves better. With collaborator Edgar Wright, he is, after all, responsible for two genuine comedy gems: the zom-com Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, a buddy-cop send-up more authentic than the films it parodies. But Pegg was last seen trying to perform CPR on David Schwimmer's Run Fatboy Run, and once again he's been asked to tickle a few laughs from a corpse.
Nick and Norah likewise betrays its source material—by altering one key sequence from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's 2007 novel involving a first kiss between wannabe rocker Nick (Michael Cera) and would-be girlfriend Norah (Kat Dennings). But that's the least of the problems in this movie about little more than a boy, a girl and their friends cruising the streets of NYC in search of the latest, greatest, hippest band in all the land (a band we never see or hear, incidentally, which shorts the audience of at least one promised reward for making it to the movie's end).
One expected far, far more from director Peter Sollett, whose 2002 film Raising Victor Vargas remains among the most pointed, poignant and joyful movies about teen love ever made. Everything about it felt special, from its depictions of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to its cast, then-newcomers who seemed to radiate from within as they groped and coped beneath watchful eyes.
But six years later, Sollett can only retrace those steps, with Michael Cera once more in the Michael Cera role to which we've become wearily accustomed as his development proves arrested indeed. From its indier-than-thou soundtrack—larded with the likes of Vampire Weekend, Bishop Allen and Band of Horses—to its split-second hipster cameos (Devendra Banhart, Seth Meyers, John Cho, Kevin Corrigan), it plays like the exact opposite of Victor Vargas: Where that movie was organic, with every scene hitting just the right note and feeling so magically accidental, Nick and Norah plays like something crafted in a lab by 54-year-old hucksters trying to sell shit to the kids under the cheerless guise of "alternative." The only thing it's an alternative to? Good.