Nick and Norah’s Infinite Shallowness

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, released in the theaters last fall and on DVD this spring, was billed as 2008’s Juno: a hip, music-infused tale of smart, quirky teens penned by a female screenwriter (who also happens to be friends with Juno’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody). As much as I want to support women directors and writers, I was extremely disappointed by Nick and Norah; it desperately wants to be smart and innovative, but it’s really just the same old romantic-comedy plot of a girl finding her ultimate fulfillment in a guy.

The guy in question, Nick, is played by Michael Cera and could basically be a stand-in for Cera’s character in Juno (with a little bit of Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall thrown in): he’s sensitive, lovelorn, musical, and prone to making bewildered-puppy faces. He worships the ground his mean-girl ex-girlfriend walks upon, and we cluck to ourselves about how he deserves so much better.

“Better” is, of course, Norah, who is suited for Nick because . . . they like the same music. Very deep. Granted, the movie takes place over the course of one night, so it’s not as if much depth can develop, but what I find disturbing is that, in the world of the movie, sharing a favorite band (admittedly, it does have possibly the best band name of all time: Where’s Fluffy?) seems to indicate that two people have a deep bond grounded in (a) musical preference and (b) feeling superior to others who do not share that preference. One of the things I appreciated most about Juno was that Juno starts off assuming that people who share her taste in movies and music are cool and therefore worthy of raising her child—but then she matures, discovering that even the “uncool” have qualities and strengths that go beyond a fondness for the same song.

However, Nick and Norah never quite get beyond the music-defines-me level. Even religion, in the one awkwardly inserted reference it receives in the script, is reduced to the realm of preference. Norah tells Nick, “That reminds me of this part of Judaism that I really like. It’s called Tikkun Olam. It says that the world is broken into pieces and it’s everybody’s job to find them and put them back together again.” Notice that she says “this part of Judaism that I really like”—not “that I believe” or “that is true,” but “that I really like.” What’s important about this particular belief is that she likes it, in the same way that she likes Where’s Fluffy?, and therefore it gives her some sense of identity.

This moment does have the potential for revealing something more essential and less superficial about Norah’s character, but when Nick replies, “Well, maybe we’re the pieces, you know, maybe we’re not supposed to find the pieces, maybe we are the pieces,” the immediate result is that she jumps straight into bed (okay, couch) with him. So much for that conversation.

And here’s where we get into another issue I have with the movie: the creation of a smart, strong female character who is still portrayed as incomplete until she has a sexual experience. Earlier in the film, Nick’s ex-girlfriend taunts Norah with the rumor that she (Norah) has never had an orgasm. (Surely not! And at the ripe old age of seventeen, too.) The most disappointing aspect of the movie is that it seems to agree that Norah is somehow defective until she does have an orgasm, which of course magically happens when she meets the right guy.

Now, when I’m watching a movie, I don’t expect the characters to abide by Christian sexual ethics (unless the characters are actually supposed to be Christian), but I do expect characters to be treated with respect by their writers. And when a female character is depicted as prickly and frigid but then “fixed” by sex, that seems disrespectful and offensive to women—and to anyone who feels that his or her identity is not entirely defined by sexual acts.

The shallowness of identity in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is presented, without judgment, as the reality of today’s teens. Juno, by contrast, showed the painful consequences of both “hook-ups” and relationships based merely on similar tastes. Though Juno was ostensibly about 21st-century teens, I suspect it may be more reflective of the worldviews of my generation (Diablo Cody was born in 1978). Nick and Norah, whatever the age of the writers, seems more indicative of a younger generation that accepts the superficial as a basis for identity, without even realizing that it’s superficial. Thanks, Nick and Norah, for making me feel old.

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  • When she meets him?! Wild!

    Ah, okay. Stepping away from the puerile for a moment. I’m not sure that the film-makers’ cliched attempt to make Norah’s personal identity wholly reliant upon her lack of (and then resolution of) climactic sexual experience is necessarily indicative of disrespect for women so much as it is disrespect for people.

    Now I’m not saying the filmmakers’ aren’t guilty of indulging unconscious (or even conscious) petty misogyny—just that for both male and female characters of these types of films, the sex experience has so long been the cataclysmic, be-all/end-all focus of the human experience, that it’s hard to particularize the victim of the ideology in terms of one sex versus the other. The fact that this kind of story-focus had been circulating for so long was the only reason why American Pie could have its lone moral: that despite expectations, the initial sexual experience really wasn’t what it was about at all.

    To be clear, the idea that Norah’s fulfillment rests on orgasm is ludicrous as much as it is when we see the same story concept play out across the countless films that dominated the ’80s teen movie market. I think the only difference is that in the ’80s, filmmaking society was still vaguely clinging to the idea that young women were free from that sort of sexual identiation (or at the least Hollywood was too coy to talk about it). With society’s increasing ability (or propensity) to speak frankly about sexuality on both sides of the male/female spectrum, I think we’ll continue to see more examples of female protagonists put through the same kind of degradating story conceits that previously largely took male victims.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Carissa


    Yep, I agree. That’s why I say it’s offensive to anyone who feels that his or her identity is not entirely defined by sexual acts.

    What’s weird to me is how many reviews in mainstream sources use the adjective “feminist” for Nick and Norah. A lot of it seems to have to do with not only Norah, but with her perpetually drunk friend Caroline, who, according to Entertainment Weekly, “offers a whole new feminist angle on the joys of gross-out humor.” In other words, girls can barf on screen, too! Haven’t we come so far? Equal-opportunity degradation. Yippee. (All that to offer another example that supports your point.)

  • Carissa

    Oops, messed up the italics there.

  • I thought when I read that Nick and Norah was a terrible book, well-written in some ways, but ultimately demeaning to all of its characters and disrespectful to its audience. I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks as if it’s been true to its source.

    My NIck and Norah review.

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