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Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Mix

October 15, 2008

This review was originally published on InterfaithFamily.com on Oct. 10, 2008. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Jenny Rapaport of Lit Soup pointed out that Norah says “minion,” not “minyan,” as I claim. Oops.

About halfway through Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Norah (Kat Dennings) makes an offhand comment to Nick (Michael Cera) that left me floored–and probably made no impression on the rest of the audience. As they engage in an awkward tarry of flirt-and-retreat, flirt-and-retreat, they exchange information about their post-high school plans: Nick is going to Berklee School of Music in Boston, and Norah is going to Brown, 50 miles away in Providence, R.I. Her eyes staring at the floor, Norah mutters about their future proximity, "I really wouldn’t mind getting away from my minyan duties."

Kat Dennings plays Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

It’s a statement as remarkable for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Norah never defines "minyan," and the non-Jewish Nick never asks. (If you’re wondering, a minyan is the quorum required to hold a Jewish worship service.) The conversation tumbles on, and Norah’s religious responsibilities are never mentioned again.

Are director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Lorene Scafaria assuming an extraordinarily high level of cultural literacy from their audience? I don’t think so. Rather, I suspect they want to authentically portray a world where Jewish identity is as casually displayed as loyalty to a sports team.

The moment also says something about the ambivalence many modern Jews feel toward their religion. Norah’s statement is both come-on and warning: if you’re going to get close, you better understand that Judaism is important to her. But it’s delivered with the same sense of highly affected apathy that Ellen Page perfected in Juno, as if to say, yeah, Judaism is essential, but it’s also kind of a drag. She’s keeping her options open either to put down her religious identity or to celebrate it. It’s the perfect response to a dilemma shared by adolescents and adults alike: how do you reconcile your need to define yourself with your desire to be like everybody else?

As a comedy about two teens falling in love, you’d be forgiven for guessing that Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is all about the triumph of identity over conformity. But it’s not. While it shares the fairy tale plotline of John Hughes movies, it eschews their easy targets: no principals, jocks or Heathers are to be found.

Instead, its characters inhabit a world of infinite hipness. Nick, the bassist for an otherwise all-gay punk band, makes his ex-girlfriend mix CDs with titles like "Road to Closure, Vol. 12." The ex could care less about the CDs–or Nick–but Norah religiously fishes the mixes out of the trash. Though Norah’s never met him, she’s convinced Nick is her musical soulmate.

Norah is smitten from the moment she spots him on stage at one of his band’s shows. Their paths become entangled in a quest to see a band called Where’s Fluffy that is so indie it doesn’t even announce the location of its shows until an hour before hitting the stage. Careening around Manhattan and Brooklyn in Nick’s disintegrating orange Yugo, the two realize they’re made for each other (of course). Refreshingly, their flirtation is less screwball banter than it is a mix of long pauses, nervous smiles and failed jokes. In other words, it’s tailored to the talents of the stammering Cera.

Dennings, the lesser known quantity of the two, is more a revelation. With Angelina Jolie lips and walnut eyes, her face constantly threatens to break into a pout. But her character is so desperate to be taken seriously that she can’t let anyone see her self-pity–even if that’s her driving motive for much of the movie.

Like the best Judd Apatow movies, Nick and Norah has some wonderful moments of a-ha comedy, where the players derive knowing laughs from their simple, honest portrayal of the rituals and quirks of contemporary youth. I particularly liked the scene when Nick and Norah finally hook up; you see nothing, but hear the kind of intimate whispers–"Your hands are cold," "Your zipper’s stuck!"–that are familiar to, well, anyone.

Michael Cera and Kat Dennings as Nick and Norah.

The film is littered with casual references to Norah’s Judaism. In their only real fight, Nick tells Norah he heard she was a "frigid, jealous JAP." Before the aforementioned hook-up, Norah tells Nick, "There’s this part of Judaism I really like called tikkun olam," which Nick appropriates into a metaphor for two people finding each other. Norah’s mention of a summer camp sexual experiment with Becca Wiener will induce nods of recognition from many 20-something Jews.

Ironically, it’s Norah’s relationship with her Jewish ex-boyfriend that reveals the filmmakers’ attitude toward interfaith relationships. Played by Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder), Tal is the ultimate Hebrew hipster: permanent five o’clock shadow, skinny black tie, carefully disheveled hair, emaciated frame. When he’s not texting, he’s hawking his band Oz-Rael’s CD ("It’s like anarchy meets Zionism," he says. "We bring the Jewfire."). Despite the breakup, he still adores Norah and showers her with compliments about her beauty and her maternal potential. To a Jewish mother’s eyes, they should make the perfect shidduch. But he’s clearly not the one for her. Jewish connection is great, the filmmakers seem to be saying, but musical connection is better.

Like Then She Found Me and Knocked Up before it, the film doesn’t make a big deal out of the Jewishness of its protagonists. Their Judaism is just a fraction of who they are, and the filmmakers see no sense in foregrounding their religious differences with non-Jews. For the glass half-empty types, these films are a sign that Jewishness has become little more than a fashion symbol, as dazzling, and disposable, as the latest model of smart phone. For us half-full types, they offer further proof that anyone can share in the Jewfire.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 2:42 am

    I LOVE this movie!!!

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