"Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" is all about love -- love of music, love of New York City and, of course, the gooey, fun kind. It is a teen romantic comedy that largely fits the familiar template but is also fleshed out with atmosphere, a nice blend of broad goofiness and sophistication, and two appealing leads who bring it to life.
Nick (Michael Cera), the sweet, sad-sack bassist of a minor band, is barely treading water a month after being torpedoed by his girlfriend -- he's just sent her a mix CD called "Road to Closure Vol. 12." Norah (Kat Dennings) has never met Nick but has come to admire his artistic tastes by retrieving his CDs from the trash at school where his odious ex has dumped his sentimental offerings. Thrown together one night to hunt down both an elusive band they adore and Norah's drunken best friend, Nick and Norah embark on a New York odyssey soundtracked by choice alt-pop.
Sincere passion for music really does say something about a person, and here it's winningly used as the medium through which two inhibited souls can come together -- but not in a silly, slavish, fan-kid way. Rather, it's an example of how art can be the mortar for two people who feel deeply and often lack the words or courage. It's a common language, a sympathetic frequency.
Cera is not only proving a bona fide romantic lead, but choosing excellent material, following "Superbad" and "Juno" with the smart and funny "Nick & Norah." He's a skinny, soulful sex symbol and his performances are gradually becoming more nuanced since his breakthrough in TV's "Arrested Development."
After stealing scenes in "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Charlie Bartlett," Dennings proves she is ready for her close-up. The Norah archetype is prone to facile cliche -- the smart, beautiful girl too insecure to see herself -- but Dennings convincingly inhabits this skin. It's painful to see Norah wounded by those who know just where to hit her.
For the initiated, here's shorthand on where this film is coming from: Nick's cellphone does have a Cure ring tone but it's "Boys Don't Cry." So it's early Cure, yet commercially accessible, and a wink at his mopey persona.
For everyone else: This is a Hollywood romantic comedy with insubstantial competition for the protagonists' affections, so there aren't significant surprises in the plot. The dialogue is charming (with a particularly lovely final sentiment), the youthful tour of New York is fond and the constant flow of music infuses the film with energy. But "Nick & Norah" rises and falls on the chemistry of its leads and, fortunately, Cera and Dennings are beautifully in tune.
"Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including teen drinking, sexuality, language and crude behavior. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In general release.