Poop, urine, spit, semen, vomit. Not a big fan. Don’t like fart jokes either.
The reason I mention it is that the inclusion of some vomit-based humor is the only thing I have to say against Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Michael Cera and Kat Dennings
Based on the book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
I would have said that this is the most unexpected reboot of the The Thin Man franchise I could have imagined, but (a) hardly anyone would get it, and (2) It’s not true. Nick and Norah has been at the edge of my radar for a while now, because Amazon thinks it’s a book I’m liable to like. And despite the fact that Amazon’s collaborative filtering has decided that I’m a teenage heroin-addicted lesbian spy with a cutting fetish, they often cough up entirely reasonable suggestions for books I might like.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is far and away the best movie I have seen in a very long time. Now, the last film I got dragged out to the theaters for was The House Bunny (Leah has a friend who was in desperate need of a schlocky feel-good movie. Any movie where the first 200 minutes are set in the Playboy Mansion and filled with playboy bunnies and that’s the boring part is not going to fare well with me. Also, they took a sweet old man, one of my personal heroes and made him cry), so I am willing to concede that my judgment might be impaired. But it was just so unspeakably refreshing to watch a movie whose plot doesn’t hinge on major characters who we are supposed to care about and respect as people acting so stupid as to imply that they are developmentally challenged (Seriously? You think that murdering your boss by throwing a bus full of screaming children at him is a good way to introduce the public to your new budget-priced weapons platform? I’m looking at you, Obidiah Stane. And no, Harry, the fact that someone was curt with you at lunch doesn’t mean that in spite of the evidence of the past six years, all your friends don’t care about you and don’t trust you.) People act stupid, sure, but they act believably stupid, and even then, that’s not what’s driving the plot.
Nick and Norah is the story of two young people who are way hipper than you or I will ever be, who pretty much know from the moment they meet that they would go pretty well together, and just have to get their individual acts together so they can get on with that. Which basically means that it’s like Questionable Content if Jeph didn’t have to keep it going for more than two hours and could just jump straight to the climactic bits. It is also a lot like Go, which is one of my favorite movies, but without the tedious “And now that you’ve started to care about these characters and situations, let’s just change the subject entirely.” It also reminds me quite a bit of Adventures in Babysitting for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. Possibly the aspect of it being structured a bit like an Epic — a sort of Jason and The Argonauts-style Quest Through Interesting Lands Where Most of The Good Bits Are Things Unrelated To The Goal That They Just Happen Upon On The Way, only with teenagers in a big city instead of Greeks in the Aegean.
Anyway, I’ve complained many times about how movies try to substitute surprise for actual quality. Nick and Norah isn’t a movie that hinges on anything being unexpected. I sorted out most of the plot about five to ten minutes in, and it didn’t make the movie any worse. As such, “spoilers” may be an inappropriate thing to call the revelations in my detailed analysis. But for those who might be more sensitive to such things, hit the jump…
Ever since Adam Cadre published his list of evaluative patterns, I’ve been much more conscious of my own evaluative patterns and tropes that I like. Number 26 on Adam’s list is “Movies should not be coy”. I think that one is very near the top of my own list. His example, Mrs. Henderson Presents is pretty spot-on: there’s something schizophrenic about a movie which tells us that naked women are beautiful and we should be less bashful about it, but which proceeds from the assumption that nudity is naughty and goes out of its way to give us only fleeting, sidelong glimpses of it because naked women are shameful and wrong and you should not be looking at them. I think horror movies are a good example of this too. Now, I know people who will swear up and down that it is in general scarier to not show us the monster or the eviscerated victim or the gore, that “good” horror works at a psychological level and it’s scarier not to show it. And likewise, the implication of sex is always way sexier than just showing is.
I call shennanigans. Maybe it’s just because I’m cynical, but when I see — or rather don’t see — the sex or the violence or the monster, I don’t feel that this is better or works on a deeper level. What I see is that the filmmaker didn’t have the artistic vision, budget, or balls to show us something that would either be expensive, difficult, or controversial to produce on film so he took the cheap way out. They don’t show you the monster because monster effects are *expensive*. They don’t show you the sex because PG-13 films sell more tickets than R films. You want to tell me that my imagination can produce better special effects than anything they could film? Sure. Okay. But my imagination can also produce better acting and a more coherent plot, so I don’t need your stupid movie at all.
Now, I will confess, Nick and Norah does not show us any actual sex, but neither does it try to, well, hide it behind a row of asterisks. (It was in, of all places, a Stephen King novel that I first discovered that it was possible to be an actual real-for-real writer who is taken seriously, and yet write a scene in which two people make love, being more explicit than “her dress fell to the floor” followed by a row of asterisks to indicate that we readers should give the characters their privacy for a bit. My mind was blown to discover that you could actually be explicit about sex without being pornographic). To my knowledge, the entire history of sex among teenagers in film consists of four kinds of movie:
- Movies in which the characters want to have sex and fail to, and this is humorous
- Movies in which the characters very nearly have sex but decide at the last minute that they aren’t ready, and this is heartwarming. Most often, the guy wants to have sex, the girl doesn’t want to, and her ultimate refusal reminds us that girls are good and pure, and boys are bad and sex-obsessed.
- Movies in which the characters do have sex, and this is terrible, and leads to inevitable death, destruction, or other kinds of shame and terribleness
- Movies with Michael Cera in them (I think it must be in his contract)
But seriously. the sex in Nick and Norah is explicit without actually showing anything, which I suppose is probably the best of all possible worlds because it does not involve me seeing Michael Cera naked.
This being about as long as I have ever gone into a review without telling you what actually happens in the movie, let’s get on to that.
Nick, who is way more indie than you or I will ever be, is still obsessed over his now-a-month-or-so-gone relationship with Tris, the shallow pretty one. As I learned from Avenue Q, when you’re hung up on someone, one way to show this if you are young and hip is to make them a mix-tape. Nick has made something like 12 of these for Tris, who simply laughs at how non-mainstream Nick is and throws them away. Norah, who is something resembling a friend of Tris, has been secretly recovering these CDs, because she, being the daughter of a comically famous record producer, is also way more indie than you or I will ever be, and shares Nick’s taste in music, thus proving that they are soulmates.
Nick is in a band which is very indie but not very good with a trio of gay men hereafter referred to as “Those Idiots”, who are going to be the comic relief for this movie (One of them will, at the end of the film, give his name as “Lothario”, but I’m not even sure he actually means it). Here already, though, we can see some evidence of why this movie is better than a million similar teen movies. Our comic relief trio are homosexuals. But that’s entirely unrelated to their being comic relief; their comedy is more of the stoner-type (though there’s no actual evidence of drug use, so really perhaps more of a cloudcuckoolander comedy), and their role in the story is more sort of reminiscent of the three fates of Greek mythology: they take one look at Norah, and decide that, yes, she must be paired with Nick, and so they contrive events to make it happen. They seem not to have settled on a name for their band, beyond the fact that the name must be some kind of sexual euphemism (hey, “The Sexual Euphemisms” isn’t a bad name for a band), but they do have a gig. Nick is enticed out only when they discover that the legendary and publicity-shy indie band “Where’s Fluffy?” is going to be practicing their usual schtick of playing a big gig but not telling anyone where it’s going to be.
This is also why Norah, Tris, her new beau (hereafter “Dickwad”), and Norah’s lush friend Caroline, who looks about as much like a high school senior as James Van Der Beek does now (to say nothing of ten years ago when he was playing one) set off to the city, as they have all deduced that the trail to find Fluffy is liable to start at the selfsame club where The Sexual Euphemisms will be playing tonight. They had a good reason to think this, though it turns out to be entirely wrong, and, in fact, nothing anyone does all night gets them any closer to finding Fluffy until the gods come down in the form of a radio voice (Y’know, now that I think about it, I’m starting to see some parallels to The Warriors) that just tells them the answer.
But anyway, Tris does this passive-aggressive Teen Movie Bitch Girl thing to Norah (Something like “Gee, it must be great not having to deal with all the inconvenience of ever having a boy like you in any way,”) to demonstrate what a bitch she is. And unlike other teen movies, everyone actually gets that she’s a bitch (Except maybe Dickwad), and that boys only like her because she puts out. Also, given that Norah’s had a steady boyfriend off-and-on for three years, Tris’s comments would seem to be misplaced. Except, of course, that she’s just a bitch. Norah retaliates by snogging the first heterosexual she sees, which happens to be Nick. It is only a few minutes later that she discoveres that Nick-the-bass-player-from-the-band-who-she-just-snogged and Nick-Tris’s-Ex-Who-Is-Exactly-As-Indie-As-She-Is are the same person, because Tris flies off into weird jealousy land, as she can’t stand the idea of the boyfriend she dumped after cheating on him for their entire relationship ever finding any kind of happiness, and tries to resecure Nick’s devotion right in front of Dickwad.
Meanwhile, Caroline, hereafter “The Lush” has drunk herself rubber-kneed, so Norah conscripts Nick to take them home. Those Idiots, however, intervene. It has taken them precisely no time at all to realize that Norah is an excellent match for Nick — and that’s really the best thing about this movie, pretty much from the moment they meet, no one doubts that Nick and Norah are perfect for each other not even Nick and Norah — the only question is whether or not the circumstances of their lives are going to allow it. Those Idiots give Norah a wonderbra from the collection of female underwear they for some reason keep in their Big Gay Van, and offer to take The Lush home so that Nick and Norah can “find Fluffy together” (Symbolism: your doin it right). Which consists of some awkward flirting (Awkward: Michael Cera is doin it right), Norah finding a clue in the ladies’ room at a random club, and then the two of them getting in a fight. Just as Norah is about to flag down a taxi, Nick receives a call from
The Fates Those Idiots informing him that they’ve somehow misplaced The Lush (Who woke up in the back of a van full of gay men discussing sexual euphemisms, and, quite understandably, freaked out.
While Caroline makes her way from Avenue A to the Port Authority (which Leah’s brother helpfully informs me is an entirely infeasible distance for her to have wandered), Nick, Norah, and Those Idiots give chase. They arrive at the Port Authority in the middle of the aforementioned vomit gag, which is based around the fact that The Lush is entirely unwilling to give up her chewing gum, even after it has fallen into a public toilet full of her own vomit.. Yeah. We will later find that selfsame piece of gum in both Nick and Norah’s mouths.
The Idiots, to whom Norah helpfully suggests the band name “A Fistful of Assholes”, who would rather just go find Fluffy and assume The Lush can take care of herself, interpret her confused phoned-in cries for rescue as a license to go look for her at the hip night-spot that their most recent Fluffy clue has indicated, and this leads to one of the very few “Movie moments” in this film, where they leave mere seconds before Caroline emerges from the ladies’ room.
At the next stop in the quest for fluffy, we meet Norah’s sometimes-boyfriend, Asshole. Actually, his name is something not very name-like, like Face, or Hand, or Tall or something, but he’s an asshole, and, again, everyone knows this, including Norah, who will later explain to Nick that sometimes, it’s just nice to have someone like you. I think I’m meandering close to the quintesscence of this movie here. Most movies, particularly teen movies and adventure movies, hinge their plots on people suddenly becoming incredibly stupid and not knowing things that should be patently obvious. In Nick and Norah that’s not the case at all — these characters aren’t acting out of stupidity — Nick and Norah know that they’re a good pairing. Nick knows that Tris is bad news, Norah knows that Asshole is bad news. Nick doesn’t spend time fawning over how great Tris is, he just can’t get over her anyway. Likewise, Norah lets herself be spooned by Asshole, but her heart isn’t in it.
Neither is Fluffy’s — instead, “R. U. Randy” shows up to play the gig. Randy dresses like the lead singer of the Buggles and his performance reminds me of the Boy George impersonator from The Wedding Singer. He’s introduced by John Cho. By an amazing coincidence, we happened to run into a high school friend at the theater, and when John Cho came on-stage, this exchange happened:
Leah’s Friend: Hey, it’s Kumar from Harold and Kumar
Me: Actually, that’s Harold.
Leah’s Friend: Harold who?
Leah: From Harold and Kumar.
Randy clears the room, and contrary to every romantic comedy you have ever seen, Nick does not go off in a huff and refuse to talk to Norah when she gives Asshole the slip to rejoin Those Idiots. He was prepared to leave without her, but only until she showed up to indicate that she didn’t want him to. They set off again hot on the trail of the Lush, which essentially means following the trail of vomit. Really.
This leads them to a grocery store where, Tris and Norah get into it largely so that Tris can accuse Norah of frigidity, which is important because of the foreshadowing, and is easy to believe because Face or Hand or Loud or whatever her asshole ex’s name is is the only other guy she’s ever kissed, and he seems about as likely to ever please a woman sexually as, I dunno, Carrot Top. Tris then ditches the Dickwad to go off and sit suggestively on Nick’s pinto (I have excised most of the pinto related humor from this review because it’s too easy).
One of those idiots gives Nick a pep-talk involving the Beatles and hand-holding.
She sits there for like three hours while Nick, Norah, and the idiots go first to St. Patrick’s cathedral and then to a drag club in order to find the Lush.
Once they find her, they take Nick back to his car while he and Norah have a heartfelt conversation which takes an disgusting turn when Norah starts chewing Caroline’s toilet gum. Finding Tris sprawled on his car leaves Nick in an unpleasant predicament, and he agrees to take her home, leaving Norah to look after Caroline, who she looks after by leaving her with Those Idiots again so she can run off to feel wanted by Asshole. Meanwhile, Tris fondles Nick with her feet and then offers to have sloppy makeouts with him, and Nick gives absolutely no indication of being at all convinced, but is, as it turns out, a man, and so he lets her seductively crawl all over his car and kiss his windshield and start a strip tease. Except that “her song’ comes on the radio. I can’t recall what it was, but to say that it was “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang would be close enough. At any rate, it is the least indie song you are going to hear in this movie, and it gives Nick a bad case of flashback, so he drives off, abandoning Tris, then he uses his windshield washers to remove her lipstick. Symbolism: Your doin it right.
Meanwhile, Norah notices that Asshole is much more interested in Norah as a way to get his bills comped and to get his Jewish-Indie-Rock music recognized by her dad than for herself, so she wanders off to meet up with Nick again and run off to somewhere secluded.
This “somewhere” turns out to be the very famous and important recording studio her dad owns. Throughout the evening, they’d repeatedly referenced the fact that Norah’s dad was famous, but wouldn’t say for what, and the revelation here is sort of offhand and they don’t make a tremendous deal about it. It appears that she actually tells Nick off-screen, as he’s just repeating it back to her for our benefit when we find out. They have about as much sex as is physically possible without either of them getting any more naked than to unbutton her pants. As I said from the outset, we don’t actually see anything. In fact, while they make out, the camera becomes interested in a microphone cable, which it follows out to the mixing board, where we “see” the sound of Nick bringing Norah to orgasm in the space of about fifteen seconds, because Nick and Norah are both good people and therefore have fantastic sex, which may, had they been left to their own devices, actually culminated in them actually touching, except that the idiots have meanwhile found Fluffy by act of God, and so Nick and Norah have to button up and rush off to see them.
Of course, as with all quests, at the end, you end up deciding at the last minute not to bother, so when Tris and the Asshole both show up and basically demand that Nick and Norah go back to them, Nick and Norah instead hold hands (Symbolism: Your doin it right) and run off together into the sunset. Or rather, sunrise, because it’s like 5 AM.
So a happy ending was expected, of course, but it actually grew organically out of the events rather than being an act of God at the last minute. No one ever overreacts or goes all drama-queenie. There’s no sudden moment of revelation where they decide to love each other, and very little in the way of cheap shots to make us care about the characters or worry about the characters or anything like that, and no one acts like they’ve suffered brain damage, except for the people who actually have suffered brain damage.
It doesn’t suck.