Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)
When you’re a teenager, sometimes there is nothing more important in life than music. Generally one of the most prominent means for a teenager to outwardly define his or her emerging personality is by music. Coming of age and maturing musical tastes seem to go hand in hand. I may date myself here but I can recall my own personal blossoming thanks to the likes of Green Day, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Offspring (you couldn’t go anywhere in 1995 without hearing “Self Esteem”). Nick and Norah’s romantic interlude begins over common musical tastes and move from there. Having a person “get” you seems to be linked with having a person “get” your music. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is an inviting and mostly successful teen comedy that “gets” it.
Nick (Michael Cera) is nursing the common teen ailment of a broken heart. He’s one part of a queer core punk band and just happens to be the only heterosexual band member. Nick has been sending mix CDs to his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), but she’s been tossing them in the trash. Norah (Kat Dennings) has been fishing those mix CDs and falling in love with her unknown musical soul mate. Norah’s best pal Caroline (Ari Graynor) has informed her that her favorite indie band, Where’s Fluffy?, is playing a secret late-night show in New York City. The slew of characters, Norah and Caroline and Tris and her new boyfriend, attend a nightclub where Nick’s band performs. Awkward. Norah poses as Nick’s new girlfriend and the two take off together to drive a very drunk Caroline home. It is here that they begin an unforgettable odyssey filled with gross toilets, drag queens, Norah’s ex-boyfriend (Jay Baruchel), jaunts to recording studios, and many stops along the way to try and find Where’s Fluffy?
Nick and Norah isn’t anything altogether remarkable but its charm comes in how, well, unremarkable it comes across. I do not mean this as faint praise or a backhanded compliment. The majority of teen-oriented films have the habit of slotting characters into rigid archetypes. Earlier this year, the documentary American Teen was released and barely made a blip. The director of this documentary condensed an entire high school year into a feature-length film, but she framed her characters as entrenched stereotypes patterned after movies (movies began the stereotype, now is life merely following its lead?). The marketing even had its main “characters” recreate the Breakfast Club poster with the requisite Jock, Geek, Princess, etc. It’s so easy to paint in broad, well-established strokes when it comes to teenage characters and a high school setting. So it’s genuinely entertaining and encouraging to see Nick and Norah where the characters just are people. Granted the gay characters are a bit too cutesy by half, though they never become swishy stereotypes and the slutty manipulative ex-girlfriend character is a pretty familiar and clichéd antagonist. But the real charm of the movie is seeing characters that cannot be painted in broad strokes, characters that do not hide who they are, and characters that refuse to be typecast. Just watching Nick and Norah interact, I felt like I was watching two friends instead of high school archetypes having the same tired class warfare. Making the characters reasonably realistic and unremarkable is a breath of fresh air.
Not all the elements in Nick and Norah entertain; some feel like they’ve been surgically attached from different movies. The entire subplot involving the sloppy drunk escapades of Caroline seems extraneous at best, providing an unnecessary plot point that keeps Nick and Norah together for the night. It provides some laughs due to Graynor’s highly amusing drunken performance, but the subplot also pushes the movie into outlandish gross-out humor, like when Caroline vomits into a toilet, drops her gum in the same toilet, and then decides to foolishly go after the gum. The same piece of chewing gum has its own fantastic journey. The coupling between Nick and Norah is also given a weird and somewhat unseemly addition. Clearly these two kids “like like” each other and the wild night presents different coupling obstacles before these fun kids eventually decide to make a move. In one scene Norah is taunted by Tris about never having had an orgasm. So then the movie makes it a point that when nick and Norah do hook up that we are presented with Norah earning her first O-face (the whole climactic sequence is done off camera and only with audio). Orgasmic proof was not needed to convince the audience that Norah has finally found a worthy guy. The fact that they’re high school-aged students brings an unsettling, seedy element into an otherwise wholesome film. It wasn’t needed.
The plot of Nick and Norah has a few bumps along the way because the emphasis is on the groovy and genial atmosphere. Watching the movie is somewhat akin to attending a party with some cool people. You leave the theater with your spirits lifted a tad, a smile on your face, and some fond memories for the time being. I’m not saying that Nick and Norah is comparable to the best teen comedies of all time but it manages to spin a little magic. I couldn’t help feel wistful as I watched the teen characters romp through the late night music scene of New York City, a character all its own. The movie manages to capture the exciting essence of being young and alive in an authentic way.
The two leads are deeply enjoyable. Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is a great find and comes across as a natural teenager. She’s not precocious or glib, but she seems grounded, unassuming, and yet intelligent in a way that doesn’t pass as hyper-literate. Dennings gives a spunky performance that is tinged with awkwardness and heartache, as she explores the scary yet exhilarating prospect of romance. She’s also got a bashful beauty to her, like the girl next door that would never admit that she could be attractive. She’s got lips like red licorice and classic features that could work in old Hollywood. Dennings gives every scene a boost of heart and the movie shines brightest every minute she’s onscreen. Cera (Juno, Superbad) seems to have patented his nervous stammer that he’s previously showcased. I wonder what Cera’s acting range actually is because he seems to be playing different variations on the same character. However, I have written before that Cera is the living master of comic understatement and the well-timed pause, and he proves it again. He mopes a bit too much through the movie but Cera manages to make him empathetic and not pathetic. The two of them have a sweet chemistry and it’s easy to yearn for their coupling.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist exists in a world that doesn’t exactly resemble our own but seems like a swell place to visit. The movie almost contains a certain innocence to its teenage shenanigans. Dennings and Cera make for engaging leads and an adorable couple onscreen. Not all of the parts come together as well as Nick and Norah do, but the movie’s overall vibe is authentic and low-key, apt to provoke cheerful smiles more than laughs.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on October 12, 2008, in 2008 Movies and tagged ari graynor, book, comedy, coming of age, drama, high school, jay baruchel, kat dennings, michael cera, romance. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.