Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

February 18, 2009

I have always been partial to the romance of the Long Night. It must be something about the quiet of a sleeping city, or perhaps the onset of tiredness that allows defenses to crack combining with the dreamlike state of excitement that comes with being out and about when you’re normally not. Rules don’t seem to apply when you’re young and out late, and fittingly the night is always best when there is no immediate goal or straight line to travel. Meandering towards a vague destination only emphasizes the journey, and the discoveries to be made along the way. Also, I was pretty sure in high school that if I had one of these nights with a girl, she would probably really like me as she got to know me through the course of said journey. It is an adolescent fantasy of the indie-twee set: intelligence, wit, and sensitivity have a better chance of shining through at night, because when daylight hits they all go back to the popular ones. It is no wonder that, as a teenager and even today, I deeply cherish that particular indie sub-genre of the Long Night, a form that was ruled through the 90’s by Richard Linklater’s triple-hit of Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and subUrbia. I’m not entirely sure if my being precious towards this type of film helped or hurt my viewing of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but if it was the former, this must be absolute torture for someone who doesn’t care in the slightest for these films.

Not that Nick and Norah can safely fit into that subgenre. The film lacks the hallmarks of the “indie” film as much as it aspires to include them. The Long Night film doesn’t have to be an indie talkfest, of course, and a (perhaps the) prime example of the late 90’s teen comedy revival came with the cult hit Can’t Hardly Wait, a raucous and clichéd tale of an end-of-high school all-night party. It played up on the ridiculous drunken antics of the graduates and the class nerd’s desire for the most popular girl in a way that was about as mainstream as you could get while still managing to be sweet and endearing. Nick and Norah’s problem is that it uncomfortably tries to combine the two. We have sensitive characters falling for each other through the course of the night mixed with cartoonish characters and gross-out comedy, and both sides fall well short of success.

Nick (Michael Cera, playing the Michael Cera role) is still pining for his ex-girlfriend by leaving long messages on her phone and making mix CD after mix CD. His ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dzenia) couldn’t care less, mocking him and his CDs to her friends (though they don’t seem much like friends) Caroline (Ari Graynor) and Norah (Kat Dennings). As soon as the opening credits are done, the clunky character set up gets under way. Tris is cartoonishly mean about Nick, and throws his latest CD in the bin. Norah pulls it out as soon as Tris leaves, and Caroline mocks her for stalking.

“He makes the most amazing CDs. And look at the artwork!”

“I’ve never even met the guy!”

Lines like these come quick and blunt, letting the audience know that A.) Tris is shallow and the wrong girl, B.) Norah is sensitive and has a connection to Nick through his music and C.) Norah has never met Nick, so this can in no way seen as her stealing her friend’s boyfriend and her and Nick could still be meant for each other. From fairly early on we know this is not going to be a film that tests the conventions of your standard rom-com, which in and of itself isn’t a problem.

All the characters are obsessed with an underground New York band called Where’s Fluffy, who do nothing but secret gigs and require fans to comb the length and breadth of New York to find out where they’ll be playing. Everyone converges on Nick’s band gig in the city. Norah, unaware of who Nick is, kisses him to prove to Tris that she isn’t on her own, and thus the plot grinds into motion. The meet cute isn’t the film’s problem, though it is forced, but rather the development of the relationship from that point forward. It is set up far too quickly that they like each other, so the tension of the rest of the film has to come from them coming to terms with their newfound mutual affection. Unfortunately, all the “tension” is as forced as the first kiss. They have extremely dull conversation for a few scenes, and then unbelievable plot points stand in their way (Tris wants him back, Norah’s got a bastard on-off ex). Points of tension are thrown in throughout the film, and instead of rising organically out of the plot, they come from absolutely nowhere. Early on Norah mentions she has to make a choice between attending Brown or staying in New York to take up a job, and for some reason she has to make the choice the next day. Now she might have to take the Brown position because of deadlines, but why mention that at all? Why write it into the story? I assume it is meant to make the night Mean Something, but since it really goes nowhere worth mentioning, it’s just extraneous. Much later on, when Tris confronts Norah about her relationship with Nick, she lets loose that she knows she’s never had an orgasm. Not only does this come from out of the blue, but a minute later Norah is talking to her like she’s having a heart to heart with a good friend as opposed to someone who has just stalked her across the city to ruin her chances with a guy she likes. The less said about the resolution (or non-resolution, as the case may be) of these points the better.

The main love story is failure from the start, and it isn’t helped in the least by the peripheral sub-plots. Norah’s friend Caroline gets drunk early on, so Nick’s bandmates have to take her home. She wakes up while they’re stopped, runs away, and everyone spends a good portion of the film looking for her. To be fair, one of the few positives of the film is Ari Graynor’s performance in the scenes where she’s wandering around New York on her own. The film generates its only real laughs in her scenes in the train station, specifically with an employee and a turkey sandwich. On the flipside, her other scenes supply the type of gross-out comedy that is to be expected in your average teen comedy, which is completely at odds with what the filmmakers are obviously trying to accomplish with Nick and Norah themselves. The bandmates don’t help much either. The bandmates are gay, and to the film’s credit, they aren’t portrayed solely as sexless friends. At the same time, they spend a goodly amount of time being the sweet friends trying to help out the heterosexual friend. Other times they take up the stoner role, seeming to have short-term memory loss for laughs and forgetting Caroline in favour of getting snacks or trying to find the gig. The film trudges on with Tris being cartoonishly self-obsessed and Norah’s ex being far too self-involved to stop the audience from questioning how she wouldn’t have noticed having been with him for three years. Most of the forced conflicts are resolved in unsatisfactory ways, and then it keeps going. The movie is only 89 minutes long, and yet it has two endings too many.

All that doesn’t even touch upon the technical faults of the film. For a film that is about music fans, the music is dealt with very poorly. I shouldn’t criticize the film for its choice of music (although it is shit), but I can complain about the use of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score. It seems to come up, very loudly, in sequences that would obviously be quite dull (or at least seemed so to the director), as though they were aware that the dialogue and chemistry just wasn’t there so the music would move things along. The editing is weak, the ADR is obvious and jolting, etc…

I might be being too precious about a genre I love, but I really think the filmmakers failed on a basic level here. Not confident enough in their characters to let the film breathe and grow with their relationship, they felt they had to shoehorn in caricatures and gross-out comedy to appeal to the masses. The tonal disruption is too much to overcome, and we’re left with a film that is neither as smart as it wants to be, nor as funny and crowd-pleasing as it needs to be. It feels more like the cynical exploitation of a sub-genre trying to gain credibility as a ‘hip’ movie with a mass audience that it probably underestimates. The Long Night is too packed with incident for us to believe in the characters or understand their emotional connection. A Long Night teen romantic comedy that lacks romance, comedy, and the beauty of the Long Night…Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a disappointment to say the least. On the bright side, the playlist isn’t actually infinite, so that’s something, right?

-M

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