The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist Sounds Smart, Looks Familiar

Written by: Catastrophe Waitress, Special to CC2K

Image Let me preface this review by being honest:  I have not read the novel Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) and I’m not going to.  My reasons are a combination of not being a teenager and not reading.  Also, I hate stories that make allusions to mixtapes because they remind me of Cameron Crowe and people that make mixtapes.  I’ll elaborate:  mixtapes are just an excuse for the creator to prove something pointless…like their flawless music taste (Crowe) or that they are in love (and apparently nothing says “I love you” better than a compilation of somebody else’s romantic affirmations).  I know, I’m a heartless bitch, right?  Mixtapes are awesome!  Totes. 

The script for Nick and Norah reads like a mixtape:  a mash-up of formulaic plot contrivances, with the occasional deviation into showy splendor, and a few genuinely sweet moments.  It’s a witty script, in the same vein as Juno and The Gilmore Girls, a mild-mannered romp across the cusp of adolescence, where “growing up” is synonymous with long-winded inner monologues and a permanent state of bewilderment.  The story spans one evening in New York City, as the title characters swap spit, secrets, PG-13 insults, and a dozen or so quasi-in-the-know references.  Nick is a good guy, but basically a loser (an amalgamation of all those boys in high school that only want to play guitar/write poetry/trade Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and that think things like jobs and steady income are for robots and/or “The Man”).  Having been recently dumped by his hot piece of ass girlfriend, Nick meets Norah, a be-flannelled anti-hipster hipster.  They kiss, some things happen, and later, some more things happen.  I should mention that Nick is the lone straight member of a queer-core band and that Norah attends a prestigious private school in New Jersey.  Both love music but not life.  In fact, they find life full of disappointment and stupid people, which is true.  Obviously, it’s love at first snark.  Except that Nick is still pining after the appropriately named “Tris” and Norah has a sort-of boyfriend who, in a shocking plot twist, is a big ole asshole.  The story literally takes off when Norah’s chronically drunk friend gets lost in the city and the rest of the gang, for reasons unknown, decide to rescue her.  I won’t talk too much about the final scene, because what happens in the end feels irrelevant compared to what happens between the beginning and the end.  However, I will say this:  there are shades of The Graduate and Garden State.  You can decide whether this is a positive or a negative.

I think that I’m supposed to want to be Norah.  That is, if I were a 17-year-old girl.  She represents the current teenage ideal:  a cute smartie that has geeky-chic interests and a self-prescribed outcast lifestyle.  Thanks to the popularity of Juno, it’s no longer unfavorable to be “different,” so as long as your unique pursuits are fashion-forward and not of the “spends 10 hours a day playing Zelda with Cheetos fingers” persuasion.  Just as Generation X once thought unwashed hair and Pearl Jam was the height of carefree superiority, Generation Z is similarly confused, buying into the mainstream definition of “different,” which almost always translates to “shops at Hot Topic.”  But Nick and Norah are effortlessly cool in that “don’t look at me, I’m not cool (yes I am)” way.  She wears flannel and he has Supercuts hair; she has bad friends, his are gay.  Both listen to fictional bands like Where’s Fluffy (Norah describes them as ‘xenophobic’) and real bands like The Cure (“Pictures of You” plays at some point and Nick makes himself ever more vulnerable to being kicked in the balls by associating the song with his current emotional state).  Normally I would take this moment to ridicule the use of a Cure song in a film that’s supposedly a representation of all things indie, but oddly, the music choices work.  Think of it this way:  Robert Smith wrote gloomy, self-pitying songs about desperation and isolation.  Teenagers are gloomy, self-pitying, and generally unpleasant to be around.  It makes sense.  Ironically, it’s the character of Tris that best exemplifies the film.  At one point she’s described as a “mall hussy [who] woke up, went to Urban Outfitters, got a Ramones t-shirt” and called herself “counterculture.”  Tris is basically a visual explanation of Nick and Norah:  well versed in hip jargon, but ultimately a poseur. 

But let’s talk about the players, because the success of the film is largely dependant on the acting.  In theory, the casting for Nick and Norah is golden:  Michael Cera, the current It Kid of Hollywood and Kat Dennings, the pouty barely legal from The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  However, in application, I have a few questions:  1).  Can Cera really pull off Nick?  Meaning:  is he the right brand of loser (D&D-playing-They-Might-Be-Giants-listening loser?  Or bad-poetry-writing-admirer-of-Rivers-Cuomo loser?  It’s important to distinguish)?  2).  Is Kat Dennings too pretty?  Meaning:  do pretty girls wear flannel?  Fans of the book have similar questions, except that they care more about the answers than I do.  They’ve built relationships with the characters and have likely formed their own ideas as to how each distinct personality will be portrayed.  Sure, Cera has the cheap haircut and deliciously awkward temperament (one of these days he’s going to have to play against typecast, or forever be christened “George Michael Bluth”), and Dennings, well…it’s certainly possible that she’s capable of transforming herself into a Plain Jane, though, this begs another question:  will Dennings be this year’s Ellen Page?

Truthfully, there is some good mixed in with the questionable, particularly how both Nick and Norah are straight-edge, which is practically unheard of with today’s naughty youth, outside of the Christian sect.  Rather than 90 minutes of careless hook-ups, drug runs, intoxicated confessions, and weary bathroom humor, Nick and Norah addresses “teen issues” with a bit more tact.  There’s also the occasional moment when the story intentionally mocks the very subculture that it’s representing (a music geek calls his band a “fusion” of hardcore and…Radiohead, surely a jab at the way all musicians cite Radiohead as an influence, whether they’re indie rock or John Mayer).  I have little doubt that the film will be popular amongst a specific age demographic; my only concern is that the rest of us, over the age of 16, simply won’t give a shit (personally, I can only stomach teen coming-of-age dramadies on non-Leap Years).  Where Juno was set in the wholesome Midwest, thus creating a sort of blank canvas that didn’t detract from the character studies, Nick and Norah takes on the overly-cultured NYC—a character in itself—and fills its story with “true New York experiences,” while generalizing “true New York people” (how obvious are the punk kids and the hilarious gay sidekick?).  Also, no self-respecting New York punk kid would ever help a Jersey boy with Supercuts hair, driving a stalled yellow Yugo.  Honest to blog.