MOVIES: petpluto Reviews Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

My parents call me the Clive Barnes of cinema (Barnes being a critic who rarely had an outright negative review of a piece of theatre, and so quotes from his reviews peppered the posters of bad plays), which may or may not be a valid assessment. I do know that I tend to become incredibly giddy after seeing a film, and prone to calling it “the best movie ever” if I liked it. Worry not. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is not “the best movie ever”. It is, however, an incredibly charming, giddy-inducing, musically inclined film. It does not have many (or any) deeper thoughts than two teenagers (and their assorted friends and cohorts) having fun and running around the five boroughs, but that is oftentimes enough for a teen romance/romantic-comedy. This is no Breakfast Club, where conventions are broken and the audience, along with the characters, are forced to examine stereotypes and the labels we ourselves own. In fact, one of the only issues I have with the film is that very point.

Being a feminist means that one of the first things I assess in a film, and it happens mostly subconsciously – a little inkling that nags at my enjoyment, is how women are written. That is the basis of my issue with movies like Superbad, films I could have otherwise enjoyed had the women been more than just props or objects – or not there at all. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist passes the Bechdel Test, but barely. It has one fully formed female character, and the other two girls in the movie come off more as blatant stereotypes of girls and girlish behavior than characters in their own right. My friend and co-blogger, John, wrote about the book Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (a book I’ve yet to read, which is why this is merely about the film for the film’s sake), and describes Caroline being “not just a Tara Reid wannabe”, and Tris not simply being an example of the Evil Ex. Unfortunately for the film, both of those nuances were lost. Caroline is sweet, and the actress plays drunk well. And, aside from the fact that I imagine at some point Caroline would pass out to not party again in the course of the night, her selfish, whiny, myopic and beer-goggled vision of the night is pretty much on target for an extremely drunk person. Even her obsession with her gum comes across as something that could have been ripped from some poor friends’ account of a terrible night dealing with the drunkie of the evening. But because she is one of three girls who the movie focuses – even briefly – on, it becomes troubling that her drunken (and lost, and broke) state is all she has to demonstrate. Norah comes across as even more extraordinary as she searches the city for the lost Caroline and admits to Nick at one point that she is a very good friend – the implication being that Caroline is not one. That could even be excused, if not for Tris. Friendships are sometimes one-sided and drunk people are not always (or even often) fun to deal with. But Tris’ portrayal in the film is of a girl who cares deeply only about herself, who is upset that Nick has potentially gotten over her not because she still likes him but because she likes the adulation she still receives from him. She seems proud of the fact that she did, in fact, break Nick. And she is almost offended that Nick could and would move on, even though she is dragging poor Gary around the city and apparently cheated on Nick throughout their six months of dating. John has assured me that Tris is something more in the book, and that her relationship with Norah was more nuanced. But the movie gives us three women, and two of them have one to two dimensions – and those dimensions are not pleasant. Norah is the exceptional woman of the film, in part because she has a heart and a working brain. In a way, the movie kind of grades women like a Sarah Palin debate; the barest minimum necessary to be a good person is more than passing. Norah has more than the barest minimum, but the other two girls (if this were a debate) would have fallen off of the stage at one point.

 

It is a testament to the rest of the film that the portrayal of Tris and Caroline did not immediately make my feminist go Incredible Hulk on the movie. It is genuinely fun, and both Nick and Norah come off as being sweet, intelligent, and flawed. Norah has her awkward moments while trying to connect to Nick, and Nick’s obsession with Tris becomes an impediment at various times. MediasMaven (who I saw the movie with) described Nick as Michael Cera’s traditional character, only in skinny jeans. And I can’t disagree. Michael Cera doesn’t seem to have much (if any) range; but that is fine in this film because the slightly morose, deadpan reply is all that is needed in a great majority of Nick’s situations. But Kat Dennings sparkles. I haven’t seen her in anything else; however, her Norah comes across as clearly intelligent, strong, and in control. She has moments of weakness; her relationship with Tal is one of those weaknesses, aside from both allowing Norah to expound on how she sees herself and allowing Nick to recognize that he feels something for Norah. Both Nick and Norah are genuinely likable; and I personally was tickled by the fact that these two characters share their names with the protagonists of The Thin Man series (who were portrayed as continuously, if elegantly and intelligently, sloshed) and did not drink.

 

Another strength of the film was the depiction of the minor male characters. Aside from not being the stereotypical gay teens, both Thom and Dev were incredible friends. The anti-Carolines, if you will. They did screw up (like by losing Caroline), but they more than make up for it with their sweet (platonic) devotion to Nick, and their hilarious conversations about their band. They are also allowed to be sexual, with Dev picking up a random, though fun, guy at a bar to spend the night with (though probably not the kind of night either envisioned) and Thom giving “come hither” looks to some patrons of a gay club. The movie did not emphasize their sexuality, nor did it downplay it. It was not used in a slapstick or dehumanizing way; they were treated first and foremost as teenagers. What I also liked was that they weren’t there to teach or lesson or to show the audience that homosexuals are people too. They demonstrated that point by being people in the film. I also really enjoyed Thom, given that I quite like Aaron Yoo. John could tell me otherwise, but I thought it was also a good (in that multicultural sense) that Thom was Asian and that nothing was really made of it. He was just Thom.

In that vein of not exploiting Thom and Dev’s sexuality, the film also shied away from exploiting Nick and Norah’s sexual interactions as well as the usual gross out humor that peppers teen fare. The vomit scene is gross, and I think it is meant to be. In my theatre, there was an audible and disgusted and unison “ew” that emerged from the audience. Nick’s flashback to his time with Tris was, in contrast, subdued. As was the one lonely sex scene in the movie. The ingenious way of filming said sexual scene heightened my appreciation for the film. What the movie truly succeeded in doing, though, was in making me want to grab my nearest and dearest friends and make a break for New York City. I wanted to run around like Nick and Norah and Dev and Thom did, though without the vindictive exes and without losing anyone. The city was its own character; it was alive and dynamic and beautiful and seemed like a place of infinite possibilities, along with that infinite playlist.

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3 Responses

  1. “the other two girls (if this were a debate) would have fallen off of the stage at one point.” Bwahahahaha! An excellent assessment.

    As someone who has read/seen both versions of the story, I can tell you that the producers reduced Tris and Caroline from well=rounded and interesting characters to one-dimensional props. Caroline may have gotten more of a focus in the movie than the book, but none of it was favorable. Tris DOESN’T want Nick back in the book, and even helps Norah by giving her some Nick-specific romantic advice. Thom wasn’t specifically any ethnicity in the book, so I have no problem with him being played by Aaron Yoo. What did make me sad was the loss of so many other characters, like Tonie the bouncer at Camera Oscura or the cab driver that helps Norah stop being a crying mess. Though nothing compared to the removal of Nick & Norah’s walk through the deserted streets of Midtown at 3 AM, which was (I felt) the most romantic chapter in the entire book. ElectricLadyLand Studios is neat and all, but that whole section seemed like it should have been saved for an all-new epilogue rather than injected into the main story in place of the midtown scene.

    Y’know what? Maybe I should just tack on a response to your review. It might make things easier.

  2. I liked that everything you touched upon–the multiculturalism of the cast, Nick’s homosexual friends’ relationships–was displayed as normal, and I think for me that’s one of the reasons why it didn’t at first stand out for me as a major plus for the film, but it’s definitely a strong though subdued point.

    In some ways, especially after reading John’s review of the book (which I will do my own assessment of after I read it), I felt Caroline’s story was unfinished. Her character is very one-note in the film, but I thought the actress did a great job, because I liked her and she’s a character that would be very annoying, since she does stay drunk throughout the movie. We know she’s not going to stop.

    Hopefully I’ll read the book this weekend. It’s out practically everywhere!

  3. there were some awkward moments in this movie that were hard to get over… like every time that gum was passed around, yuck

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