Shyness Is Nice

Michael Cera in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Sony)is so slight it’s almost diaphanous—an hour after seeing it, what the movie leaves behind is not so much a memory as a mood. Still, it’s a fine mood, lit with the sparkle of the Manhattan skyline and scored to a wistful indie-pop soundtrack. Teen viewers accustomed to the rapid-fire vulgarities of Superbad and Pineapple Express may snort at this movie’s emo guilelessness. But like its source, a young-adult novel of the same name by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Playlist is unabashedly romantic. Some people really were made for each other, the movie asserts, and New York does look beautiful by night. You got a problem with that?

Besides its heroes’ iconic names, Playlist makes no reference to the Nick and Nora of the Thin Man comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And unlike their martini-swilling screwball counterparts, this Nick and Norah are straight-edge New Jersey teens who can party all night without downing so much as a beer. Nick (Michael Cera), the only straight member of a queercore band called the Jerk Offs, is still mooning over his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena). He burns her homemade CD mixes with titles like “Road to Closure, Volume XII,” which Tris promptly tosses in the garbage. Norah (Kat Dennings), Tris’ classmate and the daughter of a famous record executive, secretly retrieves these CDs from the trash—like Nick, she’s a music geek with omnivorous tastes.

See what other critics are saying in Slate V’s “Summary Judgment.”

Over the course of one night, the two will fall for each other while roaming New York City in search of two things: a show to be played at an unnamed venue by the underground band Where’s Fluffy? and Norah’s hard-partying best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor), who wanders off into the night after one tequila shot too many. The where’s-Caroline subplot soon devolves into a string of standard-issue gross-out gags (though Graynor, an Angie Dickinson look-alike, is funny and admirably game). But as Nick and Norah bounce from hipster bar to all-night diner to drag cabaret (in a lower Manhattan whose most fantastical feature is its abundance of good parking spaces), you can’t help but root for them to hook up—not that that outcome is ever in any real jeopardy. The competitive Tris makes a few halfhearted attempts to win back Nick while Norah endures some pawing from her ex, Tal (Jay Baruchel, nailing a small role as a sleazy arriviste). But essentially, this is a one-crazy-night movie in which all that matters is the mysterious momentum that propels our protagonists from one shimmering backdrop to the next. Like Before Sunrise or the lovely karaoke-bar sequence at the center of Lost in Translation, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist captures the excitement of exploring a city with someone you barely know and really, really like.

Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), directing from a script by Lorene Scafaria, seems unsure of whether he wants to be John Hughes or Paul Weitz (the director of American Pie, who also co-produced this movie). I wish Sollett had forgone the broader stuff and gone with his sharp instinct for romantic comedy, which, at its best, calls for more than just snappy banter. I particularly dug a love scene in a recording studio in which the central couple’s off-screen passion is registered on an audio soundboard and a moment when Nick uses his windshield wipers to wash away the memory of an old love.

I’ve already lobbed so many valentines at Michael Cera that the poor kid is probably hiding from me behind his locker door. At the age of 15, he fully grasped the unorthodox comic strategy of the Fox series Arrested Development and entered into its world. At 19, he quietly stole both Superbad and Juno from his far more effusive co-stars. Critics are starting to get on Cera, now 20, for always playing the same stammering, diffident nice-guy role, but when was that ever a problem for the comic he’s most often compared to, Bob Newhart?

After reading this recent profile of the press-shy young actor, I half-hope that Cera does drop out of the acting game, not for our sake (I could watch him stammer on a weekly basis, and if Arrested Development were still on, I would), but for his. The idea of him “stretching” to play some Oscar-bait tormented hero, and being critically savaged for his trouble, is just too painful to contemplate. As we used to scrawl in high-school yearbooks: Don’t ever change, Michael. Stay sweet.