Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (review)

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Maybe kids really are just nicer these days. I’m sort of getting this sense that they’re all so gosh-darn pleasant and friendly and polite — not all of them, sometimes not any of them, individually, but in a general generational sense. And I see that in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which is kinda like Ferris Bueller’s Night Out, but way less snarky and way sweeter, and the whole gang is Ferris. This could well be definitive flick of the Millennial generation, the one that captures its attitudes and hopes and fears and overall zeitgeist. (It’s based on a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and the fact that I’ve never heard of them is probably a sign of my age.) I feel like if I were in high school right now, this would be the flick that would speak to me most of anything I’ve seen in recent years, and this is the flick I’d look back on 20 years later with fond memories. Damn, I almost wish I was 16 again, because Nick & Norah presents a portrait that is a helluva lot, well, nicer.
Look: There’s no way, in Ferris’s world, that a guy like Nick (Michael Cera: Juno, Superbad) would ever have been allowed, in the cruel calculus of adolescent tribal behavior, to date a girl like Tris (Alexis Dziena: Fool’s Gold, Strangers with Candy). He’s a skinny, sensitive creative type, a musician and a poet and a tender, tender heart. She’s a bitch on four-inch heels, a user and a manipulator. Teenaged boys of all stripes have always and will always be attracted to her kind, because she’s “hot”… but since when do they actually return the favor? It’s as if Nick and Tris live in some crazy parallel universe in which everyone just gets along, in the larger cultural sense, I mean: of course some people are still terribly mean to others, but this feels like a place in which you couldn’t have that bit from Ferris in which the school secretary runs through all the school’s cliques — the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads — because there simply don’t seem to be those kinds of distinctions between these kids. They all play in the same sandbox.

The sandbox here is one long night out in New York, a little adventure in the city for a gang from the burbs of New Jersey. Nick travels in with his bandmates — they’re still arguing over what to call themselves — Thom (Aaron Yoo: 21, Disturbia) and Dev (Rafi Gavron: Breaking and Entering), who also happen to be a couple, which goes delightfully uncommented on, in a postgay kind of way that does not believe it warrants any kind of special highlighting, except via Nick’s brokenhearted lamenting that they “don’t know what it’s like to be straight — it’s awful.” He’s upset because Tris dumped him, and he’s still not past the making-mix-tapes (er, CDs) for her. (Nick would never have asked for a car in the first place, and would never have been disappointed to have gotten a computer instead, because how else can you burn CDs except with a computer?) Tris is in the city with her friend Norah (Kat Dennings: The House Bunny, Charlie Bartlett), who doesn’t drink at all, and Norah’s friend Caroline (Ari Graynor: For Your Consideration, Mystic River), who’s a bit of a slosh. And here we have more of the thorough lack of peer judgment on the part of these bizarre creatures who pretend to be teenagers: both of these lifestyle choices are also okay with everyone. It almost makes the refreshing way the film treats Norah’s Jewishness — as just, you know, a thing, and nothing to be turned into bad “ethnic” “humor”; we could call it post-Jewish, I guess — barely worth mentioning.

Everyone’s in Manhattan chasing down a secret concert that will be put on by a neo-punk band called Where’s Fluffy? (Or perhaps the band is called merely Fluffy, and the game of finding them is Where’s Fluffy? I was never quite clear on that.) Clues pop up all over the Lower East Side and East Village — graffiti on bathroom stalls, enigmatic hints from radio deejays, that kind of thing. Nick and Norah meet at the evening’s first stop, a gig by his band at the hip club Arlene’s Grocery; she’s trying to pull herself out from under the thrall of users and manipulators of her own, and the two simply click (with a little push from Thom and Dev). Off they all go on an overnight odyssey all over the city, not just searching for Fluffy but chasing down Caroline when she gets separated from them and getting away from Tris, who decides to try to sink her claws back into Nick just as maybe he finds he can fall for someone new.

If I didn’t know better, I’d look askance at the idea that an East Village club would admit high-schoolers on stage or in the audience, except that downtown hotspots do indeed have nights set aside for underage rockers and fans. Because today’s teens — with their iPods and their MPs and their Napsters — have the quirkiest, most eclectic taste in music ever, if they want to: they have access to all the music ever recorded, and they take advantage of that. There’s nothing especially “hip” about their music, because if everyone’s hip then no one is. It might seem odd to us oldsters that Nick can say, inadvertantly punning on both the wild-west music scene and personal pigeonholing, “I don’t really subscribe to any label” (even if it makes us think of Ferris and his disdain for isms), but it’s probably so much a default position for today’s kids that he wouldn’t even need to say it.

And that’s how Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist feels: funny and witty and clever and charmingly quirky as if charming quirk had gone so mainstream that nobody even noticed anymore. It’s Romeo & Juliet as if the Montagues and Capulets have never even thought to start feuding… for even though she’s a rich girl who goes to a private school and he’s a poor kid who drives a junky old Yugo, it’s barely even a thing that that might keep them apart. Forgive me if I’m making it sound like there’s no drama and no tension here: that’s not the case. But instead of coming from outside forces, it comes from within our very appealing hero and heroine: they are their own stumbling blocks to their own happiness, which is usually the case for all of us, isn’t it?

Maybe I’m wrong about kids today. Maybe Nick & Norah is a total fantasy in all senses of the word, not just about the possibility of finding true love in high school but about what high school is like in the early 21st century. But if I’m not, this wonderful little flick could do ambassadorial duty across generations: as alien as these nice kids may seem, they’re not so different from us after all.

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Mon, Oct 06, 2008 1:27pm

Having worked with teenagers for a lot of years, I can verify that your description of them is indeed a total fantasy. The only thing different from when we were that age is everybody seems to have an iPod now.

Glad you liked the movie, though. :)

Ryan H
Ryan H
Mon, Oct 06, 2008 1:47pm

I’d disagree. As someone who was a teenager not so many years ago (although it is getting more distant all the time) and as someone who identifies more with the younger, more connected, part of my generation a lot of what MaryAnn said resonated.

Sure there are the cliques, but they feel more like part of a fashion statement than an identity. With all the information and ideas floating around out there, there are so many good reasons not to like someone that raging on them because of their clothes or music seems like such a waste. I mean, why care if someone is a jew or gay or democrat or whatever? If as people they are not worth your time why would you need to label them with a reason?

Sure, this isn’t an attitude shared by everybody, but it is becoming more and more common. Lots of people still get caught with their parent’s hangups, but by and large it is the lowest common denominator. Now I think I need to see this movie.

hdj aka FringeFan
Mon, Oct 06, 2008 2:17pm

I agree with Newbs it sounds like a candy coated movie, that could give me a freaking stomach ache.
This being nicer thing is just an act, similar to the whole holier then thou act. I’m going back to church.

Mon, Oct 06, 2008 7:43pm

I went to a free preview of this, so maybe that shades some of my opinions, but this movie was just so sweet to watch, it felt good. It’s not mindblowing, and awesome, but that didn’t matter.

And my brother and I both agreed its the first time we felt a mainstream movie had gay characters who were people that happened to be gay, it wasn’t some spotlighted thing with really out of place jokes or lisping “helloooossss!” constantly.

Mon, Oct 06, 2008 8:31pm

“Ferris Beuller’s Night Out”? Did I miss a sequel? :)

Did Cameron come with him, or was he in trouble with his dad for kicking his car down the hill? Did Mr. Rooney make it home safe on the school bus?


Mon, Oct 06, 2008 11:27pm

One of your most insightful reviews — as someone not far from my own teen years, it’s nice to see a genuine Gen-Xer’s take on us kids.

Loved this movie. This is a movie that really just gets the awkwardness (and inclusiveness) of the hip indie kids, although every character who wasn’t Nick or Norah irritated the living hell out of me. (It was nice to see gay people who were annoying not because they were queeny stereotypes, but because they were vacuous lunkheads.)

Tue, Oct 07, 2008 9:00pm

it sounds like a candy coated movie, that could give me a freaking stomach ache.

I am well attuned to that kind of absurd saccharineness, and I can assure you that that is not the case with this flick.

they were vacuous lunkheads.

They were, but they were sweet, harmless vacuous lunkheads.

Fri, Oct 10, 2008 4:56am

Good call on this movie, MaryAnn. It was my third movie of today (after How To Lose Friends and Alienate People and Blindness), and I was planning to see two more movies after, but I ended up being so touched by it that I opted out of the other two. Simply put, I really enjoyed the place Nick and Norah took me to, and I decided to stay there for a few more hours.

movie fan
Sat, Oct 11, 2008 6:01pm

there were some awkward moments in this movie that were hard to get past… such as every time that gum was passed around (yuck!)