(Note: We're re-posting this review from the Toronto International Film Festival to coincide with the film's theatrical release this weekend)
By: James Rocchi
Starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a light, slight, fleet-footed teen comedy of romance and indie rock; there are logic holes in it, and lulls, and moments that seem devoid of sense, to be sure, but there are also moments in where Cera or Dennings will smile and your momentary doubts and disagreements are washed away and your head is filled with a sense of gladness, not despair, that you're watching our young, happy hipster heroes on screen. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist combines the shaggy-dog sprawl of an early John Hughes film with the blunt talk and softly-rounded feelings of the Apatow comedies, and if it did not have leads as charismatic and tonally correct as Cera and Dennings, it would be very close to dead in the water; however, since it does, it isn't.
Taking place in some movie version of Manhattan where parking is always immediately available and everyone over 25 has, apparently, been executed Logan's Run-style, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist begins as Nick (Cera) is trying, and failing, to get over his breakup with the tedious-yet-tempting, hot-yet-hateful Tris (Alexis Dzienia), leaving lengthy messages on her phone and exquisitely sequenced mix discs at her door. Tris laughingly discards Nick's most recent effort into the trash at school; sarcastic-but-sweet Norah (Kat Dennings) retrieves it, as she's done for several of Nick's discarded offerings: "He makes the best mixes ever." The fact that Nick's latest effort is labeled "The Road to Closure, Vol. 12" tells you that Nick has strong feelings, and, in this case, weak vocabulary skills.
Nick and Norah go out into the night -- Nick, to play a gig with his band, The Jerk-Offs, Norah to escort her woozy, boozy hot mess of a pal Caroline (Ari Graynor) through the evening. Norah, confronted by Tris and her new guy, suggests she's there with her boyfriend, which she clearly is not; on short notice, she temporarily enlists Nick, who she does not recognize as Tess's ex, even landing a kiss on him in the name of verisimilitude. Tris, jealousy aroused, starts being very intrigued as to when all of this happened; Norah, mortified by the ramifications of her ill-advised plan, nonetheless forges a connection with Nick. Heartened by the idea of Nick being intrigued by anyone other than Tris, and with hot band Fluffy playing one of their secret shows in the city that night, Nick's bandmates Tom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Ravi Gafron) offer to get the drunk, dozy Caroline home so Nick and Norah can bond while searching for the location of the gig.
As Nick and Norah talk, we recognize the awkward insecurities and over-compensations that all teens have, even if they're pitched in post-modern, hyper-aware tones. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria adapts Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel for the screen with the right mix of too-perfect phrases ("I refuse to be the goodie bag at your pity party, Nick. ...") and casual, unforced moments (Nick, responding to the above salvo from Nora: "You don't have to yell; it's a small car. ..."). And as Nick and Norah share their ambling, shambling adventures through the night as they track down Caroline, who's gone missing, they not only choose to move past their past and present errors (Norah's 'friend with benefits,' played by Jay Baruchel, is a loser and a user who, nonetheless, makes her feel less alone), but actively choose to choose each other.
Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) may not be the most assured director, but you don't go to a film like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist for innovative camerawork or brilliant visions; you go in the hope of witnessing scenes as funny and warm as the ones where Nick and Norah gently mock each other from a foundation of knowledge and understanding and because they're realizing the pleasure and the joy of making the other one smile.
Cera's Nick is nerdy, courtly and kind; his whole performance evokes the moment in Say Anything where John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler cautions Ione Sky's Diane against stepping in some broken glass. As Norah, Dennings is natural and knowing, smart and sensitive and self-doubting, and if Cera and Dennings seem to have been cast solely on the strength of their work in earlier films like Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they nonetheless deliver the sort of charm a film like this lives or dies by. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist has the chiming, catchy and ultimately transient charm of the rock tunes that are scattered though its soundtrack with a backbeat of broad jokes and bigger moments giving enough forward motion to get to the happy ending while keeping it from outstaying its welcome.