'Nick & Norah': a syncopated romance

The Baltimore Sun

Where's Fluffy? is the name of a cult band that the North Jersey hero and heroine of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist seek in the hipper musical haunts of New York City. Young moviegoers merely seeking fluff could start and end their search right here. The title pays hip homage to the smart-talking characters William Powell and Myrna Loy played in their Thin Man movies. Don't expect anything too tart and tingly from this long night's stumble into romance.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist has been designed to make gentle hearts soar beneath neo-grunge exteriors. It's a mixture of high-SAT humor and high-jinks so crude they're really low-jinks. High-school audiences hungry for a hint of intelligent romance in movies targeted for their demographic may find it a relief from cheery musicals or overblown after-school specials.

Their elders will resist a film that veers between hipper- and more-sensitive-than-thou. Michael Cera is a skilled young actor who retained his appeal even in the gratingly cute Juno, but I think familiarity with him may breed ennui. Here he plays Nick, a weedy, woebegone senior. The bassist for a "queercore" band, he devotes his talents to writing songs and compiling mixes for Tris (Alexis Dziena), the vapidly pretty girlfriend who cheated on him before dumping him on his birthday. Norah (Kat Dennings) is a knock-out who doesn't know it. Only now is she growing into her warm, generous beauty and out of a three-way high-school friendship with Tris and the fun-loving, hard-drinking Caroline (Ary Graynor). Norah has the wittiest dialogue, especially when she doesn't refer to Nick or Tris. She says, for example, "I am the head squire in Caroline's quest for attention."

Norah already has fallen in love with the boy who's written lyrics such as The way you're singing in your sleep/the way you look before you leap/the strange illusions that you keep/you don't know/But I'm noticing. (I quote the original novel.) She just doesn't know who that boy is.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan wrote their book in chapters that alternate between Nick's and Norah's first-person points of view. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria can't duplicate their dual streams of dawning consciousness. Without them, all that's left is a wispy plot. It kicks into gear when Nick, Norah and Tris end up at the same club one star-crossed night. Norah, needing a pretend-boyfriend, grabs the guy who most intrigues her in the room and initiates a prolonged kiss. Of course, it turns out to be Nick.

Their evening takes a Y-shaped course. Although Tris sees Nick with another woman and suddenly gets interested, Nick must realize that she's poison. Norah enlists Nick's band members to drive the stuporous Caroline home - and then find her after Caroline bolts from their van. Amid all these miscues and interruptions, Nick and Norah get a chance to prove that their kiss sizzled because they're meant for each other.

With Nick's gay mates acting as matchmakers, the course of love runs predictably, if not smooth. Although Cera's halting, shy deliveries are the latest in teen chic, directors serve him better when they don't dote on his sensitivity, as Peter Sollett does here. You may worry that the full-bodied Dennings will snap him in two. With affected accouterments - the hero drives a yellow Yugo - the movie teeters on the brink of preciosity. That's why the audience goes crazy for jokes revolving around Caroline getting sick and retrieving her gum from a toilet.

Some quirky, evocative lines survive the whimsicality, such as Nick admitting, "I never wash my pants; I like to keep the night on them." Sollett displays some skill and tact when Nick and Norah enter an empty recording studio and explore the adolescent joys of making out - and getting somewhere. But at the movie's end, when Nick says, "This is it," you may feel like asking, "This is it?"

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

(Columbia Pictures) Starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor. Directed by Peter Sollett. Rated PG-13 for teen drinking, language and crude behavior. Time 90 minutes.

Online Watch preview and see more photos for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist at baltimoresun.com/movies

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