Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) is a frenetically paced, angst-ridden teen romance that charms its way past its own clichés. A quirky, poetic tribute to New York, it’s a love story set over the course of one long night.

That night begins when unappreciated, long-suffering, poor little rich girl, Norah (Kat Dennings) meets heartbroken good guy Nick (Michael Cera) bassist extraordinaire and the lone straight member of a queer-punk band. They come together when Norah, desperate to impress school friend rival, Tris (Alexis Dziena), asks Nick to be her ‘boyfriend for five minutes’.

There’s instant attraction and they share a kiss, but trouble lies ahead. Norah’s rival is also Nick’s ex girlfriend. Self-consciously straight-laced Norah has an ex-boyfriend waiting in the wings, while Nick is still pining after Tris and blindly sabotages many early moments with Norah. Inevitably she runs; inevitably he pursues; inevitably it’ll all end happily. We’ve seen it all before, of course, but this film has a few trump cards that it plays brilliantly and will keep you watching.

Firstly there’s the casting – the two leads, in particular, acquit themselves well. Cera plays a variation on his standard good-guy-loser persona but is effective in the role and hits all the right notes. He has genuine comedic timing and more range than he is often given credit for. Dennings, casually beautiful and believably awkward, steals her scenes with ease, showing a promise that’s been all but wasted since. Together they have genuine chemistry and manage to hook us in – vitally important in a romance that takes place in such a condensed space of time. Unusually, almost uniquely for a teen movie, both are actually believable as teenagers.

The supporting cast is strong too, particularly Ari Graynor, who, as Norah’s best friend, Caroline, has an often hilarious night of her own. A subplot is devoted to her drunken misadventures and comedic misunderstandings as she is separated from Norah and tries to make her own way home. It’s through this subplot that most of the film’s humour is found. Yes that humour does verge into good old teen gross out territory but it manages to remain believable and adds to the story, rather than distracting from it.

The supporting cast is strong too, particularly Ari Graynor, who, as Norah’s best friend, Caroline, has an often hilarious night of her own. A subplot is devoted to her drunken misadventures and comedic misunderstandings as she is separated from Norah and tries to make her own way home. It’s through this subplot that most of the film’s humour is found. Yes that humour does verge into good old teen gross out territory but it manages to remain believable and adds to the story, rather than distracting from it.

A second trump card is the writing. Lorene Scafaria pens a largely loyal, if slightly watered down, adaptation of the YA novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Like the novel, the film takes pains to present fully formed gay characters. They’re gay but this doesn’t define them, it is just an aside – they simply are. Almost uniquely in the genre these are not stock characters designed to be the target of homophobic humour. In short it’s a realistic and deceptively modern portrayal of teenagers today, gay or straight.

Scafaria maintains the swift pacing of the novel and the film unfolds, more or less, in real time. In both novel and film, the protagonists are music obsessed. Nick futilely tries to lure Tris back with an endless supply of mix CDs that Norah secretly retrieves from bins and listens to herself. On this night of nights the couple pursue the prospect of discovering the location of a secret gig by a favourite band. In the novel this concert is squandered early on; for the film, Scafaria wisely places it much later and uses the search for it as a catalyst for the plot.

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This is a film that’s almost as much about music as love. Nick and Norah meet at a concert, Nick plays in band, Norah’s father is a music executive, the couple spend a brief time in a recording studio and for most of the film they’re following clues for that elusive concert. Unsurprisingly music features heavily on the soundtrack – a well-placed assortment of indie rock that’s one of the real highlights of the film.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a teen romance that doesn’t takes itself too seriously. A comedy that isn’t afraid to be romantic, its characters are teenagers with teenage concerns; they are not teenagers acting out the romantic ideals of an older generation. It doesn’t do much new and for some it’s probably forgettable but for me it’s the first and to date best romance of and for the millennials.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared on Manalishi Films in June 2012.

© Calum Campbell 2012, 2016.

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