There's cute. And then there's cutesy.
Puppies are cute. Photographs of puppies are cutesy. (Photographs of puppies dressed in knitted puppy costumes are, let's face it, disgusting.)
Peter Sollett's "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" is cute -- genuinely cute and sweet and funny and heartwarming where the majority of films of its ilk are either cutesy or disgusting.
It's a date night movie with recognizable truth in it. The kids in it -- high school grads who haven't yet started college -- remind me of graduated seniors I've actually known in the world (one in my own house, not to mention her friends), and maybe even one I've actually been.
And they do what kids so often do the summer they graduate (at least I did) -- pub crawl through the urban night looking for music they like and tending the health of those among them who drink too much and too stupidly (mixing a lot of everything in too short a time) and then spend the rest of the night upchucking to prove it.
I don't know that it's this year's "Juno" but it's not that the movie isn't trying -- at least a little -- to call up memories of last year's smash comedy about the sardonic pregnant teenager who discovers the poignant difference between talking like a grownup and actually being one.
It not only shares a co-star with "Juno" -- Michael Cera (who played gangly, goofy Pauly, one of the least likely impregnators in his high school) -- but the very opening credits of "Nick & Norah" deliberately remind you of those that introduced "Juno."
The other superb film it has bloodline relations to is Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity." Just as "High Fidelity" was based on Nick Hornby's book about pop music "commodity fetishists" who judge other members of our species by their relationship to records, "Nick & Norah" is based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's book about a boy who can't stop himself from making mix CDs for girls (even long after they dump him) and a girl who can only hook up with those who pass her stringent musical taste tests.
It's a sweet little joke, by the way, that they have the same names as Nick and Nora Charles, the suave, perennially tipsy private detective and his not-so-ditsy wife played in a string of '40s movies by William Powell and Myrna Loy. That OTHER Nick and Nora have all the cozy sophistication these kids don't have yet (not that they won't, mind you, 15 or 20 years down the road.)
That's what makes them both so lovable. They're larvae. They've got the urges of adults and the pseudo-sophistication and blase romanticism of graduating high school seniors (who really believe life is better when you stay up all night.) They've looked at life from one side now and, win or lose, the two of them have achieved their own plateaus of grace under duress with "life's illusions."
Cera plays Nick, who's been dumped by the school sex goddess, the kind of self-involved girl who's been so attractive for so long that she considers boys as disposable as Kleenex or condoms. Nick, needless to say, isn't dumped easily. He torches a lot, moons a lot, and keeps sending her perfectly calibrated mix DVDs to prove devotion she no longer wants.
He's the one straight guy in a rock band of otherwise gay guys which Norah catches one night. She's secretly a little impressed even if she'd never show it so early on.
They meet cute, in other words. She forces him to pretend to kiss her quickly just to stave off an unwanted tumble in reputation, and that's how the whole nightlong pub crawl begins.
They're bridge and tunnel kids in Manhattan on a beautiful summer night. Superficially, they're looking for a favorite band called "Where's Fluffy?" (playing somewhere that night, everyone knows, but where?) and Norah's best friend, the one who drinks and regurgitates and wanders off and gets lost (and has an entirely unseemly affection for her wad of gum.)
So they drive around Manhattan in his broken down Yugo that everyone thinks is a cab.
They're never denied crucial access to places because it seems Norah is "Ira Silverman's daughter." Who? Nick hasn't a clue who he is.
Until, that is, Nick and Norah have squabbled and danced around each other enough to prove to her that he's not one of the familiar legion of guys who just move in her direction for Daddy's connections.
Daddy Ira, it seems, is a co-owner of Electric Ladyland Studios, where Nick and Norah have one of the sweeter (and more ungraphically realistic) sex scenes you're likely to see in this kind of movie. There's no "Skin"-emax heavy breathing or pseudo-porn gymnastics or even the suggestion of them -- just the suggestion of the kind of clumsy, exploratory lurch into "safe" sex such a long, headlong night would bring.
The continuing joke about that much-favored wad of chewing gum turns quite gross after a while, but it's the kind of ridiculous tall story that, so help me, turns up 20 or 30 years later when people tell stories about nights like this.
Who could possibly dislike these kids? Some people maybe, I can't. I don't think movie audiences their own age will either.
Michael Cera has practically become our movies' embodiment of gangly, sensitive teen and young Kat Dennings as Norah has just the right wisecracking worldliness that conceals a teen vulnerability out of control.
For what it's worth, it's beautifully done by director Peter Sollett, who hereby fulfills the promise everyone knew he had in his first film "Raising Victor Vargas."
In the right hands, even date night teen comedies can be awfully good.
"Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist"
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in Peter Sollett's adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel about a couple of music-loving high school grads who fall in love over a long funky night of pub crawling and taking care of a drunk friend. Rated PG-13 opening Friday in area theaters.