Exactly what sort of border has been crossed with the release of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, I do not know—but I am reasonably sure that American culture has entered new territory, with the first teen-date movie to precede the Big Kiss with a discussion of tikkun olam.
Who could have guessed the concept would become so popular? Thirty years ago, if you had polled the members of the average synagogue, you would mostly have received blank stares at those words. Today, Columbia Pictures bets they’ll play to the thirteen-to-twenty-five market.
Not that anybody’s thought to improve the ads with the tagline, “Repair the world!” The promotional campaign for Nick & Norah mostly wants to sell you on indie rock, downtown Manhattan glamour, and a couple of actors who are extremely cute, in an approachable way. As you can learn from the trailer, high-school seniors Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) meet cute in a Manhattan club and spend the next hours roaming the city in uneasy but exciting proximity, looking for a lost friend, searching for the venue of a surprise concert but mostly bickering like a teen Benedick and Beatrice. Their eventual union, of course, is a foregone conclusion. What you won’t know in advance is the nature of the critical moment, which comes when the soon-to-be lovers are finally alone in a safe, quiet place with a sofa. Here is an approximation of the exchange, which I quote from my memory of Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay.
NORAH (letting down her guard): One of the best things about Judaism is called tikkun olam. It’s the idea that the world has been broken in pieces, and it’s up to us to gather them and put them back together.
NICK (confirming that he’s sensitive, understanding, made for her): Maybe we’re the pieces.
At which point, she gives him what he didn’t dare ask for.
Now, the charm of this scene (which is considerable) does not depend solely on the dialogue. Most of it comes from factors that a reviewer can’t spoil: a surprising and evocative setting, some cleverly tactful choices by director Peter Sollett and, above all, the personalities of the actors. (He is inward, melancholy, and gawky but can relax into an infectious smile; she can toss out complexly worded insults as if she’d thought them up herself, without diminishing your belief in her underlying warmth.) But as evidence that the mention of tikkun olam is not extraneous to the effect, I note that in the lead-up to this moment, nobody asked Norah for any opinion about her religion. The information she volunteers clearly does more than give Nick an opportunity to prove he’s deep. It also shows that at this vulnerable moment, she suddenly needs to assert her identity as a Jew and challenge Nick to accept it.
Why should she do so? Because we’ve already learned that one of her schoolmates has called her a cold, rich JAP; because her father, Ira Silverberg, has enjoyed a stereotypically Jewish success in the music business; because her self-infatuated not-quite-boyfriend (Jay Baruchel) is named Tal, and has just made a demo CD ornamented with a flaming Star of David. No doubt these details will matter less to most audiences than will the movie’s principal motifs of horniness, rock fandom, and gross-out humor, but the accumulation will still register, even among the least attentive viewers. Norah is systematically marked as a Jew (a process that’s carried over from the source novel, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan), and she might reasonably want to disown the associations. Instead, faced with a potential soul mate who is clearly not of the tribe, she owns up to something more than Jewishness. She claims Judaism.
If I were to think as a film historian, I might mistakenly call this remarkable moment nothing new, since it was prefigured long ago in another movie with a pop-music subject and a theme of Jewish identity: The Jazz Singer. History does not account for the impression made by Kat Dennings, who (unlike Al Jolson) brings to mind a slightly zaftig Snow White, with flowing dark hair, pale skin, rose-petal lips, and cleavage down to here. There are other differences, too. Jolson reclaims his Jewish identity within a synagogue, before his own community, whereas Dennings asserts hers within the sacred space of a famous recording studio, before a lone Christian auditor. Perhaps most important of all: the Judaism that Jolson embraces at the Kol Nidre service is a ritual observance. Dennings presents her Judaism as an ethical imperative.
For those who worry about the rate of intermarriage, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist may be one more cause for alarm. But for Jews who wonder how their religion is playing in Peoria, this is a wonderfully reassuring film. It suggests that even though our faith has a minuscule market share, it can be promoted to mainstream America in the original Hebrew as not just wholesome but tremblingly sexy.
May she be blessed, Kat Dennings, a light unto the nations.
Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark.