If there's a formula for making movies that I will like a whole lot, Peter Sollett has certainly found it with his two features, "Raising Victor Vargas" and now "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."
So, what are the ingredients? Just make it a celebration of good music, New York City and sappy love, and you've got me hooked. Seems easy enough, but it rarely happens as well as it does here.
Since 2002's "Victor Vargas," Sollett has moved up to a higher class of kids who circulate around NYC, specifically the Jersey tribe who invade each weekend and turn it into their playground. While this crowd may annoy many people (me included when I manage to visit the big city and instantly like to pretend like I live there), Sollett and authors Rachel Cohen and David Levithan, who wrote the novel on which the flick is based, clearly embrace them as a natural byproduct of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg's cleaned-up New York.
And I have to say, though I have my issues with some of what that pair has done, as a vision of New York I'll take Sollett's every time over one like Neil Jordan's simply abysmal "The Brave One," which with its vision of terror at every turn has managed to stick in my mind as the single worst movie of all of 2007. Sollett lets his love of the city play out much like Woody Allen used to (and did again this year in a new locale with the equally entertaining "Vicky Christina Barcelona"), and makes the city just as key a player as the two young lovers at its core.
And in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," the music also takes center stage as early as the opening credits, when the bands get equal billing with Michael Cera (but not the simply terrific Kat Dennings, what the hell's up with that?) even before the movie title comes up.
The emo (I think that's the word, but I have to admit I'm so old and unhip that I really have no idea what that means) soundtrack gives the night's adventures a natural flow, and I must say it's nice to know that, 20 years or so after I was in their shoes, the wannabe-hip kids still listen to bands that - in varying degrees - just want to sound like the Velvet Underground. It also gives the story its bare semblance of a plot as our kids spend the evening trying to find the hot spot where a mythical band, Where's Fluffy?, will be playing that night (and yes, I'll admit it, I did actually google the name when I got home to see if they were a real band or not.)
But this is, of course, at its core a story of young love, and a fairly familiar one at that (any doubt about the outcome is pretty much already wiped away by the movie poster, after all), so Sollett's flick has to derive its charms (and there are many) from the two leads.
Luckily, he has Cera, who by now is already an old pro at playing the sensitive lead (and will at least two more times in "Youth in Revolt" and "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World"), and he has an equal here in Ms. Dennings, who I had never seen in a movie before. She plays Norah from the beginning as rather snobby (referring to Cera as a "bridge and tunnel" kid when she's clearly of the same breed), but lets the character get more and more vulnerable as the night goes on. The two of them manage to make this familiar tale seem just fresh enough to work (at least for me.)
In the supporting cast, Ari Graynor steals just about every scene she's in as a sort of drunken muse. One very funny scene in particular, when she manages to lock herself in a car, encapsulates the fine line that Sollett is walking here between fun and danger, even in the new New York. And Cera's bandmates are the first gay characters in a teen movie that I can ever remember who manage to generate laughs without being the butt of juvenile jokes (and the use of the name "Lethorio" near the end is just about the hardest I've laughed in a movie theater this year.)
I had planned a little side rant about how A.O. Scott manages to be condescending to movies he clearly likes a lot, as he did by referring to "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" as "Before Sunrise" remade for Nickelodeon (wtf?), but I reckon I've gone on enough already. In the end, this one is as light as air but perfectly sweet, just the way I like it. Which means it's sure to be devoured by those little talking ratdogs, but do yourself a favor and go see this one while you can.