Entry 15, Eighth Review: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachael Cohn and David Levithan

Behold this blogger’s absolute surprise when she saw (I saw? I can never get that right) a book in the YA section of the library titled Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Yeah – as in the feel-good teenage romance movie from five-or-so years ago, starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings.

This is a little more than just a story of Boy meets Girl. For starters, Boy has a nasty, self-absorbed, slutty ex-girlfriend he should have gotten over months ago. Girl is a very smart girl but feels overshadowed by her two prettier friends. Boy and Girl happen to be in the same underground music club one night. With slutty ex-girlfriend on the prowl, Boy or Girl proposes that the other be his or her Significant Other for five minutes. The rest is history.

The Movie:

I first saw Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist back in 2008. I was a senior in high school and immediately identified with the scenario of the film: going out to a party, or someplace where my parents’ safety preferences were absent from my mind, meeting someone new (whom you were sure you were falling in love with) amidst a hopeless, consuming sea of young people, dimly-lit streets, insecurities and ever-changing desires.

In a very John Hughes-like fashion, Infinite Playlist told the story from two complementing points of view: that of Nick, a band member who’s recently been broken up with by the queen bee-yotch of heartbreakers, Tris, and Norah, a self-described lackluster teenager who has her own issues with a romantic partner. One night, Nick and his gay band mates are performing at a club where Norah and Tris are both attending. In an attempt to show up Tris, who condescendingly picks on Norah’s non-romantic life, Norah turns to then-stranger Nick and asks if he’ll be her boyfriend for five minutes. Nick is still pathetically hung up on Tris, but through the course of the film, Norah’s startlingly, brilliantly normal attitude robs Nick’s heart. For Norah’s part, Nick is just the face of the secret crush she’d had, ever since she had listened to Tris’s abandoned mix tapes that Nick had so carefully, passionately crafted for her. They don’t know how perfect they are for each other, but have been hurt before that they are suspicious of the chemistry they share.

In a typical reception to a romantic comedy, Infinite Playlist was pleasant to watch – yet slightly forgettable. As Norah, Kat Dennings’ performance was definitely not forgettable. In ’08, she was a new actress on the silver screen playing field. Her atypical beauty makes her look like someone you’d see anywhere (she has no stunning, superstar looks), but Dennings’ too-big eyes and wide, wry smile makes her stand out anywhere. Plus, she’s funny as hell.

Even if Dennings wasn’t in this film, I’d make her my Norah. She’s more punch-y in her role than, as I referred to him back in ’08, the guy who played Nick (it was Michael Cera. I had never seen Arrested Development).  

I remember how odd “the guy who played Nick” was. Cera is so soft-spoken and awkward that it escaped me how anyone could find him hot. He definitely had an unfailing amount of harmlessness, and he was in the band in the movie, so maybe that’s what made him irresistible. Cera’s character is too trusting, innocent…like a little kitten. Occasionally, he has enough edge in the same manner as a teenager cornered by bullies does.

His helplessness is tripled when the viewer is introduced to the chick that dumped Nick. Tris is a ridiculously gorgeous, bouncy-curled blonde with the coquettish posture of a porn star. She’s a cruel siren who was amused by Nick’s musical talent and passion, while laughing about him to her “friends,” including Norah. It’s almost immediate how the audience is set to despise Tris.

Then there’s Caroline, Norah’s blonde-haired, alcoholic best friend from Catholic school. While Norah followed her desire and accompanied Nick through the night (under the occupation of looking for a secret concert performance of their favorite band, Where’s Fluffy), Caroline the Blitzed is left to her own devices. This adorable f*&king mess is charming enough to still be horrendous to watch. She’s carried into a van by two of Nick’s friends – whom she hasn’t even formerly met –  abandons them like a runaway zoo animal, and even (I’m cringing as I type this… seriously, the memory is that graphic) retrieves her cell phone and a piece of chewing gum from the toilet bowl she had just thrown up in. To further throw your sensitivities out the window, read on: the toilet bowl is in a public restroom at a train station. The chewing gum? Ends up back in her mouth. The camera follows every move. In the movie theater, my dad looked at me like he was prompting me to hand him back the eight dollars he spent to watch the movie with me.

Meanwhile, Nick and Norah have their ups and downs throughout their nighttime journey. Their seemingly no-strings courting ritual is finalized at the mystery Where’s Fluffy concert, with Nick’s gay band mates, the jilted Tris, and Norah’s sketchy friends-with-benefits Tal, as witnesses. A fitting end is given as Nick and Norah leave the concert and end up at a subway station. They kiss as they descend an escalator, sailing away until the unknown morning.    

This is another example of films that take the general audience by storm, almost overpowering any evidence that there was a book that existed first. Essentially, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a movie that seemed to signal the hipster generation. Oh, yeah, and there’s some cool new music in it, too (but nothing spectacular).

The Book:

It came as a com-PLETE surprise to me that this book preceded the film I saw more than five years ago. I rented it from the library in the usual manner of mine – driving home with it thinking I had struck gold, reading the first two pages and suddenly becoming distracted from so much as completing the chapter, and then not touching it for up to a week. To think, that I might have returned this book without fully experiencing the sheer delightful madness and adventure that an urban setting could provide two love-beaten teenagers.

Because really, this book is THAT good.

If I had known of this book before there even was a movie, I’d be begging for one. Oh my God, is it funny. It totally blew me away. The language of the prose is so enthusiastic, so feeling, so…well, to put it shortly, it speaks like teenagers do. It’s rant-y, rife with cultural references and made-up words, and possibly grammatically incorrect sentences, but as you’re reading it, you don’t care because you are reading from the inside of someone’s mind, moving faster than the speed of light as its caught up in all kinds of emotions. It read like that last sentence. It’s hard to follow in some places, but you got it when you read it.

The way Infinite Playlist is written possesses vivid awareness of the moment. The style is free and intense and nothing short of present. Parents and school don’t exist very often.

There are also lots of poignant, sometimes wise, passages, too….

-         “There’s no such thing as ready. There’s only willing” (page 62, Nick’s POV).

-         “It’s not that I’m drunk or stoned or spiraling high. It’s just that I’m defeated. And that’s impairing all of my senses” (Page 26, Nick’s POV).

-         “I guess you don’t see the planets when you’re staring at the sun. You just get blinded” (Page 134, Nick’s POV about Norah and Tris.)

There’s even a super-philosophical moment, after Norah’s described the Jewish belief Tikkam olam, about how the world is just pieces of a puzzle and that it is “everyone’s” job to put the pieces back together. In pure musician-like wisdom, Nick goes:

“Maybe we’re the pieces…Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking” (page 145, Nick’s POV).

Meanwhile, the reader is sure to burst out, “Just MARRY him already!”

In the middle of the philosophical junk, you may think, ‘wait a minute; this is supposed to be fun, not philosophical or existential.’ Don’t worry; these moments are outnumbered by the randomness of, say, a Sound of Music-themed strip club. Seriously. I won’t explain it, but one of the finer details of this scene involve two nuns making out to Edelweiss while the lonely goatherd leers on.

Here are some of the funnier sentences:

-         “Suddenly Dev and Hunter launch into a fucking Green Day cover, and we’re all seven years old and dancing like we spit out the Ritalin while Mom wasn’t looking” (page 22, Nick’s POV).

-         “I am reminded that Jesus died for Caroline’s sins, not mine – I’m from a different tribe – so why am I saving her ass again…?” (Page 32, Norah’s POV).

-         “HOLY SHIT squared. I think I just had my first orgasm” (Norah on Nick’s immediate Heathers reference. Now she knows he’s the perfect boyfriend with more “friend” than the term boyfriend deserves).

The book’s characterizations also immortalize the roles of Nick and Norah way more than the movie’s unique casting choices do. The authors of the book, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, strategically assume that narrative voices of Norah and Nick, respectively. This is an authentic attempt to create two different voices within the same story. Chapters alternate between Nick and Norah’s point of view, making their love story, and all the heightened inner thoughts of “he thinks” or “she thinks” the center gravitational pull. Nothing else exists to them but each other. It’s like Nick and Norah are the hipster version of Romeo and Juliet – plus more music and teenagers, and minus the teen suicide and more serious, depressing side of angst.

There’s also mature themes sex, but not the perfect one-night-stand kind of sex that on-screen teenagers claim. Duh – they’re teenagers. There are several heated, but eventually awkward, hookup attempts. There’s a scene where Nick and Norah have found the perfect hiding spot to do fondle-y stuff, but after a poorly-timed interruption, Nick attains gentleman status by taking a rain check, laughably admitting that he and his newfound lady love are not ready for That Step.

There’s also the downside to teenage sex. Among Norah’s reflections is a memory she had when she took a pregnancy test. It’s a very favorable scene, perhaps one of the few but well-placed ones that are about the lives Nick and Norah otherwise return to when their night is over. It’s not preach-y or patronizing, just written in a way that a teenager would describe it.

This book-film choice isn’t really about similarities and differences, but the chief difference is Tris’s characterization. She’s not the total baddie in the book. True, she did use Nick like he was the musically talented flavor of the week, and is too sexually attractive for her own good, but somehow she has a few instants of reparation. For example, despite how both Norah and Tris treat each other as face-value friends, Tris is the only person available when Norah reflects on when she thought she was pregnant. For this, Norah can’t imitate an animal in a heated mating ritual and kill Tris for Nick. Oddly, Tris takes it upon herself to “give” Nick to Norah, like a transaction or an adoption. This could be girl-code for “I’m sorry I’ve been a bitch, take care of him, sister,” but perhaps it would be best to leave this scene to interpretation. After all, Tris is still an airheaded bee-yotch.   

Also, Caroline’s perilous drunk-journey is not featured in the book. There’s no point to it, since the book is written only in Nick’s or Norah’s points of view. Obviously, when a ditzy, solo-cup-sloshing blonde is let loose in the city, it’s a perfect side-story to keep a film’s speed going.

A sacrifice to the film is the written prose from the book….but can you imagine if Nick’s and Norah’s thoughts were heard in the movie through voiceovers? It’d be sensation overload: clumsy and too much. Seriously, two alternating voices in an already-chaotic film featuring loud concerts and dimly-lit New York streets? Ah well. I have read the book now, so it does not matter.

This two-hundred-page book is deceiving: it carries a hell of a package.  It’s stupidly witty, and just plain awesome. Ignore the fact that it might have been targeted to hipsters (or possibly written by hipsters). It understands the ever-changing pulls and desires and empty-but-instinctive yearnings of the youth. In that age, all we know, all we respond to, is the truth. The young question themselves all the time, and are lucky enough to have that split-second tendency to follow their desires. Nick and Norah could be the trendy idiots you see at a mall, causing some kind of a ruckus while you’re sipping hot cocoa with your grandmother at a food court…but they could also be your grandparents when they were young, and so in love and eye-batting while holding hands at the park. This kind of stuff is timeless.  

I’m not kidding. Read this book and appreciate the fact that every generation has its own dialect – especially used by its young people.

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