Doing a comic mystery dance with ‘Nick & Norah’

October 4, 2008




What hath “Juno” wrought? Are indy films going to be like indy rock, with the delivery pipeline clogged full of self-consciously whimsical (if not fey) projects that give off the whiff of hand-made, home-made art? The movie equivalent of MySpace music?


OK, that’s probably not fair when talking about “Juno,” one of 2007’s genuine phenomena, which had real heart and lovable smarts. And it’s unfair to “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” which now follows in its wake.


Given how long movies take to gestate, the success of a small-ball teen comedy like “Juno” and its proximity to the release of “Nick & Norah” is happenstance. “Juno” costar Michael Cera, the Nick of “Nick & Norah,” was shooting “N&N” last year when the “Juno” wave hit.


This film is less a premeditated cash-in than a lucky coincidence that this pleasant little comedy surfs the same humor wavelength as 2007’s breakout indie hit. OK, those hand-lettered, three-hole-binder-doodled credits were probably a conscious choice – but then you’ve got a whole movie to think about.


So let’s just talk about why “Nick & Norah” does (and doesn’t – but mostly does) work. And let’s start with the cast – particularly the deliciously vulnerable and funny Cera.


He’s Nick, whose mix CDs express his angst, his longing and, most of all, his broken heart at his break-up with the flirty, undeserving Tris (Alexis Dziena). He still leaves her messages on her voicemail and still makes her CDs – which she tosses in the garbage at school with a laugh.


Tris is part of a female triad, along with party-girl Caroline (Ari Graynor) and Norah (Kat Dennings). Tris and Norah aren’t really friends, just uncomfortable cogs in the same social wheel. Unbeknownst to Tris, Norah retrieves those discarded mix CDs by Nick – and though she doesn’t know who the maestro is, she’s in love with his taste, which fills her iPod.


On the night in question, several things swirl in the Manhattan atmosphere. Nick and his band, the Jerk-Offs, are playing a gig at Arlene’s Grocery (though they lack a drummer and must use a drum machine). Tris (and her new boyfriend), Caroline and Norah are also headed to Arlene’s because that’s the last known sighting of Where’s Fuzzy?, a mysterious band that only plays unannounced gigs in surprise locations, to which clues are doled out sparingly on radio and by graffiti in club bathrooms. Supposedly WF? is playing somewhere in New York on this night – so where else would you start looking for hints?


Let’s just say that, at Arlene’s, Nick and Norah meet cute and wind up taking a nocturnal tour of lower Manhattan, aided by Nick’s two (gay) bandmates and a guy they’ve picked up. They’re also stalked by Tris (who doesn’t want Nick – but doesn’t want Norah to have him, either).


They’re searching for Fuzzy; they’re searching for a lost, out-of-it Caroline; they’re searching for each other. And, of course, they find each other.


It’s part of the all-night-long genre, movies in which characters’ lives are changed in the course of a single night (a group that includes everything from “American Graffitti” to “After Hours” – hmmm, sounds like a repertory-house programming idea, if rep-houses hadn’t been exterminated by home video).


Its destination – discovering true love – is a familiar one, but it’s about the journey, right? Even there, this film by Peter Sollett (who made the much-heralded, little-seen “Raising Victor Vargas” in 2002) is walking a much-trod path. It’s a long night, things happen (some clever, some predictable), Nick and Norah connect, disconnect, reconnect. They’re working their relationship out the way Nick mixes and matches songs for his CDs.


So what’s left? Chemistry, of course.


Cera and Dennings have it, thankfully. Cera (whose haircut is perfectly described as marking him as a Supercuts refugee) has a fawn-like vulnerability, with a face that reads like a map of his confused, witty, ambitious, angst-y soul. He can fool you into thinking he’s the helpless, hopeless, lovable nerd/regular guy. But Cera has a remarkable facility with throwaway comic lines that are as jagged as barbed wire, muttering or uttering them with a completely straight face. He’s a guy who wishes he could actually live the life he has inside his head – a life that occasionally forces its way out through his mouth.


Dennings, who was alluringly real in “Charlie Bartlett,” has similar skills: administering a series of verbal cuts that bleed their targets dry before the initial slice is even felt. But she too feels unlovable; suffice to say that she has trust issues and a well-developed defense mechanism against being used for reasons that eventually become clear.


The wild card is Graynor as the overserved Caroline. Graynor puts a delightfully talkative and savant-like spin on inebriation – and owns the film’s biggest gross-out laugh.


“Nick & Norah” does provide a snapshot of this moment (or what this moment was in 2007, when it was filmed) in New York nightlife for a certain age group, touring Manhattan (after escaping New Jersey, where both Nick and Norah live) for one long, eventful night. And it has the same sort of can’t-explain-it-if-you-don’t-already-get-it feel for that moment when people with highly developed musical tastes – the kind of people who have created a moment-by-moment soundtrack for their lives – discover a kindred spirit.


Ground-breaking it’s not; but it is consistently entertaining and funny, with a sweet, knowing approach to young love that reminds you how magical it can be when that initial rush of fizzy, dizzying molecules of infatuation pixilate your brain.


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