A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 90 mins.

Nick: Michael Cera / Norah: Kat Dennings / Caroline: Ari Graynor / Tris: Alexis Dziena

Directed by Peter Sollett / Written by Lorene Scafaria, based on the novel by Rachel Cohn.

I have very modest expectations of the romantic dramedy genre, and I grow increasingly disillusioned when far too many recent examples of it botch my recipe for success.   

First, introduce us to fleshed out male and female lead characters that we relate to and care about.  Secondly, build up their relationship and develop their characters to the point where we want the pair to get together during the inevitable love conquers all conclusion.  These are two deceptively simply ingredients that many films fail to grasp, much to my chagrin.

NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST is the kind of teen-centric comedy that are in low supply these days.  Whereas several recent entries have squarely focused on scatological shenanigans and lame and ham-infested gross-out gags and pratfalls, NICK AND NORAH understands that the best examples of the genre infuses the proceedings with a slight humanistic layer.  

I remember how many of the popular John Hughes teen comedies of the 80’s transcended the genre for the way he gave his youthful characters a unique and fresh voice: they were not just cardboard cutouts at the service of the greater good of the plot.  No, his adolescents were flesh and blood protagonists dealing with self-doubt, antipathy, and social uncertainty.  There was always an awkward realism to his stories and characters.  His teenagers were not dummies, but rather smart and articulate and genuinely spoke their minds.

NICK AND NORAH - co-produced by Chris and Paul Weitz, who together made 1999's AMERICAN PIE - certainly is not in the same league as some of the finest of the Hughes cannon, but it nevertheless is one of the increasingly rare breed of teen-focused comedies that spotlight on well drawn characters first and bodily fluid gags second.  Even more so, the film has an underlining sweetness and thoughtfulness to the proceedings, which is all the more evident because of the wonderful chemistry between its two leads, who both craft such naturalistic performances that don’t cop out nor fall victim to playing scenes up to false sentimentality and phoniness.  I like it when teen films have actors that look the part (it’s hard to invest in these movies when 30-year-olds play teenagers) and have characters that have frailties and flaws.  The temptation here would be to cast two insatiably attractive actors for the leads, but NICK AND NORAH has its youthful lovers played by ordinary looking and age appropriate performers that are not super models, but rather look like real kids that display a disarming normalcy and reticent charm.   

The two actors in question here are Michael Cera (who was fantastic in JUNO and the recent howlfest that was SUPERBAD) and a star in the making, Kat Dennings (who had such a down-to-earth appeal and spunk playing Catherine Keener’s teen daughter in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN).  Cera himself has more than secured himself as one of the best new comic actors, maybe because of the way he’s so self-deprecating and skilled at underplaying acerbic laughs just right.  There is also an affable timidity and discomforting appeal to his roles, which makes Cera’s characters feel more real.  In Dennings we have the perfect young actress to play opposite of Cera.  She has a low register tenacity, snarkiness, sex appeal, and nervous energy that compliments Cera at every turn.  Part of the sheer charm of NICK AND NORAH is seeing them play off of one another so fluently and smoothly and to see two goofy kids blossom through their fledging romance together. 

The film – directed by Peter Sollett (RAISING VICTOR VARGAS) and based on the book of the same name by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan – has been labeled as a teen AFTER HOURS and BEFORE SUNSET, which is somewhat appropriate.  There is also a slight echo of AMERICAN GRAFFITI thrown in for good measure, seeing as cruising and popular music are always fixtures in the film (NICK AND NORAH has a wall-to-wall soundtrack featuring acts like Vampire Weekend and Devendra Banhart, that serve as an anthem to the film’s events).  Certainly, NICK AND NORAH is more laid back and carefree than Martin Scorsese’s HOURS, less dramatically empowered than Richard Linklater’s SUNRISE, and less free spirited and transcending than George Lucas’ GRAFFITI.  Yet, once you allow yourself into NICK AND NORAH's innocent and effervescent vibe, it’s hard to get out.

The story goes down like this:  Nick (Cera) is still getting over the dumping of his life by ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena, who was involved perhaps in the most scandalous nude scene in a long while in BROKEN FLOWERS).  The relationship, albeit only six months, felt like an eternity to Nick, who is beyond wounded and depressed (the only way he can consol himself is by making mix CDs, the latest humorously called, “Road To Closure: Volume 12”).  Nick is also a bass guitarist in a largely homosexual band named “The Jerkoff’s” that largely plays alternative rock.  His buddies come to pick him up one night to play a lucrative gig and – later – to find out the secret whereabouts to a popular and enigmatic band named "Where’s Fluffy."  Nick, being self-absorbed in his misery, at first does not want to come out of the house, but after some coaxing his gay buddies manage to convince to come out and have some fun on the town (The Big Apple, in this movie's case).

Meanwhile, we see a concurrent story develop that involves Norah (Dennings), who we learn is the daughter of a very famous music executive.  She decides to also go out on the town for some joviality with her best buddy Caroline (Ari Graynor, showing good comic timing).  Norah pleads with her friend to stay clean and sober all night, which she sheepishly agrees to (riiiiiggght), and the two end up at the pub where Nick’s band is playing.  Also there is Tris with a new beau in her life, much to Nick’s dismay.  Tris, alas, is one bad mean girl in the way she mocks the less attractive Norah, and in response she tells the egotistical Tris that she is there with her boyfriend.  She proceeds to walk up to Nick (unaware of his past allegiance to Tris) and asks him to be her boyfriend for a few minutes in front of Tris.  

Cue the meet cute, cue the jealous reaction from Tris, and cue the overnight odyssey to come.

Tris, for obvious reasons, rekindles her interest in Nick (it’s not so much out of love or admiration, but rather fuelled by the fact that she is no longer the object of his desires).  Things get wilder for Nick and Norah when Caroline goes missing from the pack (and all while being horribly inebriated), which forces the two to partner up and go on a search for not only Norah’s insanely dependant friend, but also to discover where Fluffy will be playing.

Much of what occurs in NICK AND NORA hits every methodical beat on the rom-com playbook.  We have all of those obligatory scenes of Nick and Nora bonding, which are then punctuated by sexual tension in the form of animosity towards one another.  We also get scenes that involve Norah’s past boyfriend, that serves to make Nick’s envy grow.  Then, of course, we have moments where Tris successful gets into Nick’s car and attempts to woe him back by using her feminine whiles, which leads to – you betcha – Nick seeing her for the two faced phony she is and how – gosh darn it – he begins to realize who is real soul mate is.  In short, NICK AND NORA in no way transcends this genre on a story level: it’s fairly predictable and routine.  

However, as much the film is rigidly formulaic, it’s sure easy to be won over by the thanklessly warm-hearted and sweet performances by Cera and Dennings, and even when the two are forced to trudge through a series of silly misadventures in the plot, they still emerge as winning and appealing screen presences.  The film also has a good ear for dialogue between the two, and some of their exchanges have a nice sarcastic bite (after she lashes out at him at one point, Nick responds back to her with the sidesplitting retort, “You don't have to yell. It's not a train station. We're in a tiny car!”).  Cera is such a sharp-witted and naturally even-tempered actor that it’s easy to see why he excels at roles like this (as he did so assuredly well in his last few films) and Dennings’ stock will certainly rise with her work here; she brings a delectable vulnerability to Norah and her performance is maybe the film’s trickiest as she needs to play both outspoken assertiveness while appearing emotionally susceptible.

The film also finds a discrete poignancy between the two during certain moments (just look at the way Cera is so convincing during a moment where Norah shows him her dad’s recording studio, and a later crucial scene in a coffee shop between the two, where they engage in flirtatious chit chat).  Of course, there is a sex scene here, but it's done with surprising restraint and taste, so much so that it never panders its characters down for our ogling interest.  Cera and Dennings are so instantly winning filling the shoes of their characters and show such adept timing with one another that it makes up for NICK AND NORAH’s more rudimentary elements.

The film falters in a couple of other avenues.  Notwithstanding the plot’s mechanical nature, the film fumbles with the handling of Tris’ character (a real opportunity here would have be to develop her beyond a simple-minded and shamefully self-centered, bitchy teen princess out to spite everyone) and stumbles with a couple of disposable gross out gags (one involving a piece of chewed gum, vomit, and a toilet seems gratuitous and needless).  Nevertheless, NICK AND NORAH works well in spite of itself in the form of yet another star making comedic turn by Michael Cera and a resoundingly lovely performance by Kat Dennings.  When the two are on screen together the film finds a surprisingly believable, earnest, candid, and sincere tempo, which gives NICK AND NORAH a sly sophistication above its otherwise lackluster teen dramedy ingredients.   

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