The smart teen romance Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, despite the claim in its title, has but 15 songs on its soundtrack. That disparity evokes a remark from shyster Lionel Hutz on "The Simpsons": "This is the most blatant case of false advertising since my suit against the movie The Neverending Story."
Nick & Norah puts its hip song selections and indie-band cameos so far out front, the film risks being upstaged by its music. In Zach Braff's Garden State, the quirky rom-com plot may as well have been the opening act to the prominent tunes by the Shins and others. Nick & Norah's animated opening credits put the names of New York bands such as Vampire Weekend and Bishop Allen in the margins, as if they're also stars of the film.
Fortunately, Nick & Norah offers such a charming comedy of New York puppy love, and makes music such a central part of the characters' actions and concerns, that song and story play in perfect harmony. Nick & Norah's playlist may not be infinite, but it creates such good vibrations that it's definitely transcendent.
Based on the novel of the same name by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Nick & Norah follows high school seniors who don't just enjoy rock clubs and iPods, but use rock music to establish and express their identities. Nick (Michael Cera) plays bass in a band, while Norah (Kat Dennings) has some kind of magical music-industry connections that let her walk past any bouncer in New York.
The fist time we see Nick he's in his room, surrounded by rock posters, as he leaves an endless phone message for his self-centered ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena). "That mix CD I left on your doorstep was the last one ... more or less," he mentions. The CDs in question practically broadcast his neediness, featuring elaborate designs and names like "Road to Closure Vol. 12." Tris tosses the discs, but Norah thinks Nick may be her "musical soul mate," even though they've never met.
Lorene Scafaria's screenplay sets the nightlife-savvy teens on a collision course in Manhattan. Nick has a gig with his band the Jerk-Offs, where he happens to be, in effect, the token straight guy. It may be a sign of generational tolerance that Nick & Norah proves completely blasé about outrightly gay characters such as Nick's bandmates (Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron). Nick proves mildly self-conscious about being in a gay band, but the film doesn't feel the need to make jokes about him overcompensating to prove his heterosexuality.
Nick & Norah deftly avoids the numbing contrivances of most rom-coms, with the exception of the seemingly inevitable "meet cute." At a club, Norah feels defensive that she doesn't have a date, so she asks a stranger – Nick – to kiss and pretend to be her boyfriend for five minutes. The rest of the film conspires to keep them together for the evening. Nick's bandmates play matchmaker – one even loans Norah a Wonderbra – partly because they want Nick to stop moping over Tris.
Complications ensue, of course, like the efforts to take Norah's drunken friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) back home, and then to find her when she runs off. Tris, now jealous, tries to woo Nick back with such stratagems as a would-be sexy dance in his car headlights, like a misguided version of Nicole Kidman's scene in To Die For. "Undeclared's" Jay Baruchel plays Norah's bullying, on-again/off-again boyfriend, a rival musician.
Primarily the film focuses on the thrilling, nerve-wracking state of new love. Nick and Norah tiptoe over awkward topics such as the implications of a "friend with privileges." They affectionately muss up each other's hair doing a dance called "the blow dryer" as an unspoken way of testing their comfort level with each other. They both carry a lot of emotional baggage – at one point Norah snaps, "I refuse to be the guest of honor at your pity party!" – but mostly the film captures a first date's sparks and chemistry, and how not knowing whether they should be excited about each other makes things even more exciting.
Cera previously played an aspiring musician in Juno (and was forced to sing "These Eyes" at a party in Superbad before that), and has perfected a combination of deadpan anxiety and huggable sensitivity. In contrast to his roles, he's surprisingly confident in his subtle performances. He refuses to telegraph his emotions and waits for the audience to come to him. Dennings makes Norah a more outwardly expressive personality who doesn't censor her feelings: During an argument, she punches Nick in the neck. Together, they make more of a bass-and-guitar duet than a fire-and-ice contrast.
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist reveals itself to be unabashedly in love with New York, which might as well be a sprawling college campus with free and plentiful on-street parking wherever they go. If Martin Scorsese's black comedy After Hours made a night in New York look like Dante's Inferno, Nick & Norah makes it look like Paradiso. The luminous quality of the streetlights, neon signs and shop windows proves enormously beguiling, and no parents or adult authority figures show up as buzz kills. It's like New York is a stage where young people can make beautiful music together.