For ten years now, Ive nursed an oddly specific theory: Nick & Norahs Infinite Playlist is the most geographically accurate film about New York City, at least within the last 15 years. This is a strange thing to fixate on, not least because the film doesnt come up much: It came out a decade ago, received generally fine reviews, and made $33 million (at least in part because it was riding the post-Juno/Superbad wave of Michael Ceras newfound fame), but if its become a cult film, thats one quiet cult. None of this is relevant to whats valuable about the film: Nick & Norahs primary task is, yes, to tell a linear teen romance narrative in the one crazy night subgenre. Its secondary imperative is to make sure that every time someone crosses a street or turns a car, the geography is accurate. Thats way more important to me, in part because its rarer than Id like.
This is not the kind of thing that would have popped out at me before moving to New York. I grew up in Austin from 1993-2004, at a time when Texas was getting serious about introducing tax incentives to increase film production, but the movies shot in town and released while I was still growing up didnt offer much in the way of lived, on-the-street experience. One of the first big productions to shoot in and around (definitely more the latter) Austin was 1998s The Newton Boys. If memory serves, the film bricked nationwide but played there for a few months; its nice to see your city onscreen, a privilege many places dont get, so people rolled out. But The Newton Boys is a period film, so there wasnt much to latch onto recognition-wise, with the exception of a scene shot in the Paramount Theater (a 1915-built Art Deco theater, of the type you can find all over the country, where I spent far too many summers watching the building blocks of classic Hollywood cinema) and a few set-dressed street exteriors around it. Theres Office Space, of course, but the goal there was to present a vision of a generic any-cityand most of it takes place indoors, anyway. Some local excitement was mustered for Wing Commander (shot in Luxembourg, post in Austin) and hometown hero Robert Rodriguezs Spy Kids; this isnt the richest pool to draw upon. (Please dont bring up Slacker, its too complicated to get into.)
I moved to New York in 2004. NYU unexpectedly met my financial scholarship needs, which was supposed to give me four years to transition into living in the city, which ended up happening. One of the first things I did after arriving was go see Thom Andersens 2003 doc Los Angeles Plays Itself, which Id read a lot about but had not been able to access in Austin. Andersens nearly three-hour essay film on representations of Los Angeles on screen is an excellent, game-changing thing to watch in college, but perhaps what stuck with me most was the section in which Andersen (via narrator Encke King) bitches extensively about geographical inaccuracy: how distracting it is to watch a film shot in Los Angeles and see a character make a left turn that relocates them three miles away in a single cut. Its not the kind of thing non-natives would be likely to notice, but once youre on the hunt for it, its endlessly aggravating, as Andersen demonstrates in a montage of nonsensical examples. It was something Id never thought about, and something that has subsequently been wildly distracting every time I watch a film shot where I live now.
It is, perhaps, sad that I know for a fact that there is no Dunkin Donuts in Times Square, but nonetheless there is one in Men in Black III, digitally inserted for product placement reasons. Thats doubly infuriating: Setting aside the cynicism of the motivation, it takes one of the most unbearable places in Manhattan and actually make it worse. And not to pick on Will Smith exclusively, but Collateral Beauty contains one of the most baffling subway errors Ive seen. Smith and Helen Mirren are having a conversation on the street, approach the Broadway-Lafeyette station and take one of the four orange lines (the B/D/F/Mit doesnt matter which if youre only going one stop uptown, and I couldnt tell) one stop, to West Fourth Street. They emerge from the subway car and step onto the right platform, keep talking, walk up the stairs onto the right streetand when they turn the corner, theyre back at Broadway-Lafayette. Not only is this wrong, its simply baffling; both locations were clearly visited, so why not stick the landing for one more shot? This isnt just some kind of pedantic score-settling that should be noted on an IMDB goofs page; I live here, and its insulting.
Not Nick & Norahs though. The film came out in October of 2008, the first fall after I graduated NYU, and I immediately noticed that the film is scrupulously accurate about the NYU Freshman Universe. Because NYU bought up so much property in the West Village and adjacent areas (one of the many reasons why they are widely despised by locals, which I wish Id known before applying), any freshman living in the dorms on campus is most likely going to stay confined to a certain area: 2nd to 6th Ave., 14th St. to Houston. Nick & Norahs is slightly more expansive than I remembered, starting a few streets south of Houston, at Arlenes Grocery on Allen St., and roams all the way up to Avenue A. Still, with the exception of a few trips out of the area (to Penn Station, uptown at the end and to Brooklyn Poolactually Williamsburgs locally infamous Union Pool, which the protagonists rightly leave quickly), its all in the same pocket I thought it was, and every move from one location to another makes sense. Rewatching the film, I took extensive notes on every turn and walk and could map it out; its nearly flawless in that sense. (One exception I caught: a right turn onto 10th Ave from Ave. A. Cera and Kat Dennings argue as he drives, until he suddenly U-turns back into A out of frustration. Realistically, theyd be closer to Ave. C or so at that point. If thats the only problem, were not doing badthe IMDB goofs page notes another three, only one of which I registered and is indeed weird, but none of which strike me as unforgivable.)
I might not have clocked the accuracy quite so intently if it werent for where the movie stops for a few minutes: the Modern Gourmet, a bodega around the corner from my freshman year dorm, Brittany Hall. I know the space well; on a very limited budget, there were a lot of dinners cobbled together from the hot bar (discounted after 8 p.m.!), a mlange of heat-counter dumplings, sausage and peppers and pasta shells, a combo whose taste will never leave my mouth. This is where Norahs rests for a key scene, and when Dennings comes back outside, the van where people are waiting for each other is parked on 10th St., right where it should be. That remains moving to me: A not-outstanding year of my life preserved in a succinct image that, plot-wise, has nothing to do with me.
If Nick & Norahs is the most geographically accurate NYC movie, there must be a least accurate counterpart. For that, Ill nominate They Came Together, David Wains exhaustive 2014 dismantling of (among other things) Youve Got Mail. The geographical scrambling is by design and sometimes impossible to ignore: even if youve never been to New York, its hard not to notice the discrepancy when an exterior shot of The Strandthe sprawling new-and-used bookstore/clearinghouse that claims to stock eight miles worth of bookscuts to the interior of a tiny bookstore that definitely isnt the Strand. Its actually Community Bookstore, in Brooklyns Park Slope; one of the films incredibly specific jokes is that it theoretically takes place in the Upper West Side, but was blatantly shot in Brooklyn (in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, specifically). In most movies, geographic inaccuracy is the result of laziness, inattention, or just plain not caring; in They Came Together, thats a whole visual joke that goes absolutely uncommented on. If you dont live here, you might not notice; if you do, its impossible to unsee. The movie leans into the joke hard: the very first scene riffs on an old chestnut of these kinds of films, with the line There is another character that was just as important as the two of us: New York City. Heighten the contradictions.
If one films goal is explicitly to get geography right and the others is to derange it, whats strange to me is which of the movies I now find more authentic in its portrayal of NYC. When I saw Nick & Norahs upon initial release, I guessed that part of the reason it was shot in NYU-land is because director Peter Sollett went there as well. After rewatching it, I emailed him to ask about my ten-year-old hunch. It sure was, he wrote back. After NYU I lived in the East Village for a decade, and my aim was to present the corner of New York that I love so dearly. Accuracy was always the aim: I know this is probably limited to people who live in Manhattan or have lived in Manhattan, but it always takes me out of the movie when someone takes a left on 14th Street onto [Houston] Street, he noted in a 2008 interview. It does suspend my suspension of disbelief  and it didnt seem necessary. Wains goal was precisely to suspend that suspension: We were commenting on how often NYC movies ignore obvious geographical realities that any New Yorker would notice, he wrote in an email to me. The entire movie is supposed to take place in the storybook version of the Upper West Side we associate with Woody Allen/Nora Ephron, etc., but was shot entirely in Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill. My favorite example of this was when were at the coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights outside the Clark St. subway station but we changed the [subway] sign to be the (non-existent) Upper West Side’ station.
I dont doubt Solletts sincerity of intent or love for the area, but Im guessing our experiences at, and relationship to, NYU are pretty different. Its not worth getting into (at least not here) why I wasnt the biggest fan of the school, but one thing I thought from the moment I entered the dorms was, This is the only time in my life I will be able to afford to live in Manhattan. I was correct: When I moved out of the dorms in 2007, I went out to Brooklyn and have been here ever since, and it doesnt seem like thats going to change any time in the near future. Nick & Norahs is a movie thats comfortable with privilege (Dennings character turns out to come from serious money), and theres nothing inherently wrong with that. But Nick & Norahs Manhattan was never going to be mine, and the final shot is a little unnerving: craning up over 8th Ave, outside Penn Station, with the camera and sun rising to optimistic music. The effect should be a real I love New York moment, but I cant get over knowing that that block is anything but pleasant, and the shops whose signs we see (Chase, Fidelity Insurance, the mini-chain Europa Cafe, which is basically in the Pret category) speak to the increasingly homogenous nature of that area in particular and NYC in general.
If They Came Togethers New York is a construction that deliberately doesnt work, in some ways its closer to my reality: people whose aspirational lifestyle is to live in Manhattan but cant afford it (not that the Brooklyn neighborhoods the film was shot in are at all cheap, or even particularly affordable, insofar as that word even still has a discernible meaning in contemporary NYC). They Came Together is the present and future; Nick & Norah is my past, seen in a nicer light than I might personally cast on it. We are all lucky to be able to have a chance to see the place we live onscreen, and some of us are more often lucky than others; were luckiest of all when someone sweats the details.