*Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It took five years for director Peter Sollett to follow up his sparkling feature debut, Raising Victor Vargas, with his adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.
And while the road along the way surely was littered with typical Hollywood stories of aborted projects and collapsing funding, he should take comfort in this: He has now established himself as cinema's reigning genius of awkward young love.
Sollett starts off with some pretty solid source material in this story of two bridge-and-tunnel teens who find themselves together on one New York City night. Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive guy still mooning over being dumped by his ex, Tris (Alexis Dziena), when he's not playing bass as the token straight boy in a queercore band. Norah (Kat Dennings) is Tris' private school classmate who knows of Nick from the killer mix CDs Tris dumps in the school trash. She loathes Tris' queen-bee pity. So when all three of them find themselves at the same nightclub, Norah pleads with "random stranger" Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend only later realizing that this is "Tris' Nick."
The devices that end up keeping Nick and Norah together for the rest of the night alternately, tracking down Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and finding a super-secret concert by their mutual favorite band could have ended up feeling forced. But there's clearly chemistry between these two sarcastic puppy dogs. Cera brings both instant likability and a sly intelligence to Nick, and Dennings matches him in both categories.
Nick & Norah is at its best when the two stars are tiptoeing their way through their initial connection. Sollett gives them room to riff off of Lorene Scafaria's screenplay, providing plenty of tart one-liners, such as when Nick responds to a question of how safe it is to leave the passed-out Caroline with Nick's gay bandmates: "If anyone is going to get raped in that van, it's going to be a guy."
He's not quite as successful when the plot drifts to peripheral matters. For a while, the inebriated Caroline is out wandering on her own, leading to some broad slapstick, like the ongoing saga of Caroline's resilient piece of chewing gum. Cameos pop up with surprising and distracting regularity, including those of Andy Samberg, Kevin Corrigan and Harold & Kumar's John Cho. There's the kind of teen-centered comedy an audience probably expects, and there's the kind that Peter Sollett is comfortable working with and they're not always the same thing.
Sony Pictures' marketing department certainly would be happy if audiences were lured with comparisons to another teen-centered comedy last year's Juno as evidenced by the selling of Michael Cera and the cutesy scrawl-style font employed for the title. Such comparisons aren't going to do Nick & Norah any favors, because only the most superficial elements connect the two films. The dialogue may at times feel similarly precious, but the all-night odyssey here is anchored in two decent kids trying to get past the games to something real. If we're all really lucky, we'll see Sollett do it again before another five years have passed.