Not musical soulmates, but I’d be friends with Norah: My somewhat revised thoughts on “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”

One of my favorite hypotheticals to play is “what’s my dissertation going to be about?” I’ve heard some good ones from friends in the academy, some of whom are putting them together as I type. I often formulate my ideas here, but haven’t nailed it down yet.

It could very easily be about Fox Searchlight and its role in commodifying indie during the 2000s. Read the titles — Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire(500) Days of Summer, Whip It! Hell, even Darjeeling Limited was a Fox Searchlight picture. And while Wes Anderson’s 2007 India road movie showcases The Kinks and not Vampire Weekend, his quirky aesthetic is all over Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno

"I made this happen," says Wes Anderson; image courtesy of theauteurs.com

But I’m a little resistent to the idea of writing about Fox Searchlight, despite the fact that I think it’s essential to formulating theories about the decade when indie broke. For one, I’m not a huge fan of many of these movies (I’m with AnnieGarden State seemed way less profound the second time I watched it). For another, to my surprise, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was distributed through Columbia.

I saw Nick and Norah during its theatrical release in fall 2008. I hated it. I thought Lorene Scafaria‘s script was too slick (perhaps unfairly comparing it fellow Fempire screenwriter Diablo Cody’s work). I didn’t know why headphone-crossed Jersey kids Nick O’Leary and Norah Silverberg (played by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) had the same first names as the gin-soaked sleuths of The Thin Man series, nor did I understand why their playlist was infinite (maybe I’d have to peruse Rachel Cohn and David Leviathan’s book on which the movie was based). 

Some of the hatred was unfounded. Since iPod ear buds appear to form a heart on the movie poster, I assumed Apples were gonna fall on me like I was Isaac Newton. Refreshingly, the movie’s music geeks are pretty low-fi. These kids like antiquated things like posters, fliers, radios, and mix CDs. Me too.

Poster for "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"; image courtesy of musingforamusement.blogspot.com

Annie and I talked about the movie last May. She seemed to think that it was mostly just okay, but liked that there were gay teen characters whose sexuality wasn’t commented upon. But then she also asked me my opinion on a scene that I had completely misread. So, several months later, I finally got around to rewatching it.

Truth told, upon second viewing my response wasn’t quite as venomous. It contained some promising moments, and I do like Mark Mothersbaugh’s score. That said, I don’t think I can in good conscience like this movie. 

1. Norah Silverberg has a friend named Caroline who clearly has a drinking problem (kudos to Ari Graynor for playing drunk convincingly, as it’s hard to do well — I also thought she was hot in Whip It!). Caroline stumbles around New York City alone, black-out drunk, and swimming in her own vomit. She’s also positioned as a burden on her BFF who often abandons her to go be with a boy she likes, thus cancelling out any sisterhood this movie could have. All of this, to my horror, is played for laughs. The entire time, I was just hoping she wouldn’t get raped, abused by the police, or die of alcohol poisoning.

1A. Caroline runs into men at port authority who won’t help her get home. One of these men is a ticket taker played by Frankie Faison, who was awesome as Commissioner Burrell on The Wire and several other things you’ve seen him in without knowing his name. The other is a mute fast food employee who lets her eat his turkey sandwich, played with the precisely executed defeat Kevin Corrigan brings to the majority of his sad sack characters. Someone be an ally and help get this girl home.   

Nick and Norah holding up Caroline, until they can pawn her off on someone else; image courtesy of areyouscreening.com

2. I find the whole love triangle between Nick, Norah, and Nick’s ex-girlfriend and Norah’s classmate Tris unfortunate. Tris (played by Alexis Dziena, who folks may also remember as Lolita in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers) is a popular girl who would probably only spend time with a dweeb like Nick because he’s harmless and his adoration boosts her self-esteem (perhaps not unlike cheerleader Cindy Sanders dating geek Sam Weir at the end of Freaks and Geeks). Thus, Tris follows Nick throughout the whole movie, first in the hopes of making him jealous at his gig by waving around her new boy only then to be jealous when he starts hanging with Norah. 

Oh, and Tris and Norah hate each other. Norah thinks Tris is a skeeze and Tris thinks Norah is a frosty box. Girl power!

2A. Tris gets Nick to drive her home toward the end of the night and does a sexy dance for him on some dock. He strands her in New York in the middle of the night. Yikes! Not the way to be, bro.

3. While it’s interesting that Nick O’Leary is in a queercore band called The Jerk-Offs, his gay bandmates function as little more than the gay best friends (see also: Sex and the City or the mice in Cinderella). They’re cute, fashionable, insatiably horny, and all too willing to be saddled with Caroline so that Nick and Norah can fall in love. One of them is Asian American, which perhaps should be exciting, but he gets little more dimension than the “MySpace is the new booty call” guy from He’s Just Not That Into You. His name is Thom, by the way (played by Aaron Yoo). 

The Jerk-Offs; image courtesy of soundofdusk.blogspot.com

Also for some reason, these guys carry a box of push-up bras in their van so they can help make over the supposedly frumpy Norah so she can help Nick get over Tris. These bras fit her, somehow.

Admittedly, they do come up with a good alternate band name. I’d go see Dickache.

3A. There’s some icky homophobia that goes on in Andy Samberg’s cameo. While I’m sure it was deemed good for his brand to be associated with this project, I’m not sure Nick’s crazy homeless sexual predator is quite the angle I’d go along with. 

4. I’m not sure how good The Jerk-Offs are, but I doubt they’re big enough to open for Bishop Allen. Just sayin’.

5. It’s much harder to navigate the entirety of New York in a night by public transit. Somehow these kids are doing it on foot or in a van. And they’re always finding a place to park. Infuriating.

6. The entire Where’s Fluffy? storyline is a disaster.

For one, the band should never be named, because any band name Scafaria came up with was not going to serve the mythological importance the band serves for the characters. As it stands, Where’s Fluffy? is on par with Hey That’s My Bike! for worst movie band names (I think the best might be Sonic Death Monkey and Kinky Wizards from High Fidelity, but welcome other examples).

Ethan Hawke's Hey That's My Bike! from "Reality Bites"; image courtesy behindthehype.com

For another, the movie doesn’t pre-date social networking and wireless communication technology, yet you’d think it does. Before the kids got to any gig, someone might have checked Twitter, Facebook, or received multiple text messages from other friends about the status of each show. Instead, these kids rely on the radio, and are thus completely clueless about the status of their favorite band’s show. How’s that for lo-fi?

Oh, the storyline does get one other thing right. Gossip can lead to awesome fake-outs. The funniest example in my experience was when Dinosaur Jr. were rumored to reunite to headline the Merge showcase during SXSW 2006. I think there was a rumor that The Arcade Fire were going to play the same showcase as well. People stayed in line for hours to catch . . . Spoon. Admittedly, Spoon are a great band. But they were local at the time, and pretty easy to catch. Haha.

I think I was waiting to see Animal Collective at the time, which my partner scorned me for because a) the show was kinda boring (err, I mean . . . “meditative”) and b) Neko Case and Sharon Jones were playing at the same time. Win some, lose some.

Finally, having the kids chase Fluffy around town doesn’t make sense, especially when a far less convoluted resolution exists: the concert sells out. It happens all the time. I bet it really happens all the time in New York, as it has more people and fewer venues to accomodate them, hence why so many alternative venues have formed. No brainer. Also, a sold-out show is a great way to get the leads together. I’ve had some lovely dates as a result of not getting in to a show.

7. If you’ve gotten this far in the list, are you noticing how busy this movie is? It’s only 90 minutes long too. As a result, all plot twists feel hasty and poorly developed. A lot could be cut out of this movie. I’d remove Caroline’s drinking or the love triangle (actually, it’s a love rectangle — I forgot that Norah is sort of dating some rock wannabee named Tal, played by Jay Baruchel). If I kept the love rectangle, I’d have the leads be with nicer people who just aren’t right for them. I feel like this is more interesting, and truer to real life.

So what did you like about this movie, Alyx?

There’s one thing I loved about it, and her name is Kat Dennings, who plays Norah.

Kat Dennings as Norah Silverberg; image courtesy of zap2it.com

I’ve actually liked Dennings for a while, due in part to the fact that her dry, off-kilter cadence reminds me of my friend Hannah from Karaoke Underground. The first time I saw Dennings was as Jenny Brier, an overly sophisticated tween who employed Samantha Jones to put together her bat mitzah in season four of Sex and the City.

"Today, I am a woman!" Kat Dennings as Jenny Brier; image courtesy of nypost.com

I felt she was underused as Catherine Keener’s daughter in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I thought she was cute in the Nylon cover she did with Olivia Thirlby. I will eventually get around to watching The House Bunny for both her and Anna Farris. I like her. Please have her be in more things.  

I found Dennings’s performance as Ms. Silverberg to be winning, making all of the insecurity that comes with being the nerdy smart girl high school guys don’t tend to notice until after they’re in college. Norah even gets a few additional layers. Her first kiss was with a girl. She’s the daughter of Ira Silverberg, a fictional producer who runs Electric Lady and not being sure if she wants to inherit the family business or enroll at Brown or perhaps choose a third option that doesn’t evince her privileged standing as an upper-middle class girl who attends a private Catholic school.

As an aside, Norah is but one more free spirit fictional character who considers going to Brown, keeping company with girls like Serena Van Der Woodsen. Perhaps they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Todd Haynes and Duncan Sheik and major in semiology. They also boast a pretty rad student radio station

I was drawn to this at 17, but knew I couldn’t afford to go or did well enough on the SAT to qualify. I jumped through that hoop just once before the application deadline to UT. I was a Texas scholar, so I knew they’d accept me. Once I got in, my AP test scores qualified me for sophomore standing, allowing me to double major in journalism and history.

But Norah is also interesting because she is proudly Jewish. I wish this had been brought in to her experience at a Catholic school, but nonetheless, I find it interesting that Norah identifies so strongly with both the cultural and religious aspects of her heritage.   

Finally, Norah makes me like her relationship with Nick, or at least feel confident about how she’ll get to shape it as an equal. When the movie takes the time to breathe and let the scenes between Nick and Norah unfold, we get the sense that these are two very well-suited people who are out on the town for one night only to discover that they could be embarking on something special, perhaps even transformative, but it isn’t executed in a heavy-handed, obvious way.

Falling in love in a beat-up car with drunk people making out in the back seat; image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

Which finally brings me to the scene that Annie convinced me I needed to rewatch. It’s their love scene. When I originally saw this scene, which takes place in the recording booth at Electric Lady, I thought it was dumb. Hooray, Nick’s magical penis surges Norah toward a once out-of-reach orgasm. It was especially irritating because the scene originally seems as if it’s going to play out with Norah recording Nick playing guitar, but instead we get to see her climax through the level readings of the recording equipment.

While I still really wish we got to see Norah’s technical prowess and Nick’s vulnerability as a feminized, performing subject, Annie is right. Nick is coaxing her . . . digitally, which allows her pleasure to take focus and has little to do with his gendered anatomy. Interesting. If the movie had made some more surprising turns and given itself room to do it, I might have enjoyed it as much as its female lead.

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4 comments

  1. ginny

    I’ve only seen the movie once, and even with it being only 90 minutes long, and having so many things going on during that time, I got really bored and wandered in and out of the room while it was on. The thing I got the biggest kick out of was finally remembering where I knew Alexis Dziena from – A Lifetime movie called “She’s Too Young” with Marcia Gay Harden (oh my). One of the things that bugged me the most about the movie was the love scene, and Tris’ references to Norah’s inability to climax. I hated the implication that Norah was less of a sophisticated woman because of it, and that Nick, a boy, was the key to unlocking her sexuality and her sense of sexual identity. Please don’t try to tell me that this girl can run all over New York to countless clubs and venues, but can’t find a decent vibrator? It didn’t seem true to her character, to me, that she would let someone else open that door for her.

    • Alyx

      This is true, Ginny. You are wise. Thank you for not giving the love scene so easy a pass. Where is Norah’s vibrator? Also, how does she come so quickly? Seriously, she’s done in under a minute. He can’t be that good.

      I didn’t mind so much that Tris thought that Norah wasn’t as sophisticated as she was because she wasn’t as sexually active, if only because Tris seems like the kind of girl (or the construction of the kind of girl) who would think (hetero)sexual activity = maturity. Of course, this speaks to larger problems with her character.

      Also, I want to see this Lifetime movie. The only other movie I’ve seen her in has her playing Sharon Stone’s naked, jailbait daughter. Weeeeeird.

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