By Judd Apatow standards, this teen romantic comedy by Peter Sollett is awfully tame. By John Hughes ones, it’s terribly uncomplicated. And by Richard Linklater ones, it offers little verbal wit. All “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” really has going for it are attractive leads in sheepish Michael Cera and dour Kat Dennings. And they’re not enough.
In the adaptation of the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Cera plays Nick, a sad sack high schooler who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), to whom he keeps sending mix CDs as a sign of his continuing love. Tris tosses them into the garbage, but they’re retrieved by her classmate Norah (Dennings), who doesn’t know the guy but likes his musical tastes. And she should know: she’s the daughter of a rock insider, romanced by a sleazy musician, Tal (Jay Baruchel), who plans to use her to get his band’s demo to her dad. She’s also able to get into the most popular clubs without waiting in line. One night, when she’s out with her hard-drinking pal Caroline (Avi Graynor) and Nick’s out with his gay garage band buddies Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron)—all of them trying to track down the place where fab band Where’s Fluffy will be playing—the two are thrown together and (wouldn’t you know it?) discover that they’re kindred spirits when they have to search for drunken Caroline, who’s wandered off on her own. But Tris’ jealousy reawakens her interest in Nick and threatens their budding romance.
There’s a “Before Sunrise” feel to all this, but the conversation between Nick and Norah has very little snap. And there’s a Hughes-like emphasis on wacky supporting characters, but while Yoo and Gavron fill the bill, the entire subplot centered on Graynor falls flat—Caroline is quite simply an irritating character whose periodic solo adventures are repulsive rather than funny, and both Tris and Tal are such despicable cads that you wish they’d just disappear. No actors could make these parts work, and Graynor, Dziena and Baruchel certainly don’t.
That leaves the picture to rely almost completely on the charms of Cera and Dennings, and they’re considerable. Cera’s opening scenes, when he’s mooning over Tris, put his skill at playing the hapless loser to good use, and he even manages to get yucks out of the conceit that he drives a decrepit yellow Yugo that people continually mistake for a taxi—a gag a lot older than he is. Dennings doesn’t quite contribute the same degree of charisma as Cera, but she keeps up with him well enough so that the picture stays afloat so long as the two of them are sharing the screen. Unfortunately, the script turns its focus to Caroline much too often, and whatever buoyancy the stars have built up gets immediately deflated and they have to start all over again.
This is a rather strange project for Sollett as a follow-up to his fine coming-of-age drama “Raising Victor Vargas.” True, like the earlier film it basks in the atmosphere of New York, and it shares some of that picture’s grit and shambling attitude. But as even a remotely real reflection of teen life it’s a non-starter. And it falls short as pure wish-fulfillment fantasy of the “Sixteen Candles” variety, too. It occupies a bland middle ground. That’s true technically as well: Tom Richmond’s cinematography is just okay, and Myron Kerstein’s editing makes it seem long at a mere ninety minutes. The collection of songs on the soundtrack, on the other hand, should please aficionados.
Nick and Norah’s playlist may be infinite, but the enjoyment they provide is definitely limited.