Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, based on the young-adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, finds Michael Cera pulling his second cinematic all-nighter, following his breakthrough Superbad. Here he quickly absconds from the suburbs for New York City where, as young bassist Nick, he has a gig opening for real-life indie rock band Bishop Allen. Nick begins the evening heartbroken over his manipulative ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), but perks up when he meets Norah (Kat Dennings), a fellow music nerd looking after her drunk friend Caroline (scene-stealing Ari Graynor). Romantic comedy ensues.

Nick and Norah isn’t nearly as riotously funny as Superbad — nor, with its sweethearted teenage romance, as subtly touching as that film’s graduating best friends destined for separation. But like Superbad, Nick and Norah‘s humor comes from natural inflections, believable characters, and genuine, unforced emotion. It’s the rare movie about young people that doesn’t feel calculated and test-marketed, even when the DVD provides ample soundtrack album promotion (with an internet connection and a Blu-Ray player, you can, essentially, send custom-made advertisements for the soundtrack to your friends).

It helps that the soundtrack does feel more or less true to the time and the characters, and that the movie includes fictional but credible musical acts of its own: Nick and Norah are both infatuated with Where’s Fluffy?, a band that announces gigs via cryptic clues and sometimes ditches its fans with a less-loved act called Are You Randy? The movie depicts musical obsession with offhand ease; it’s not really about playing music or loving a band — it’s not an indie Almost Famous — but it understands those feelings.

A good deal of this honesty (and, in fake band construction, creativity) can be attributed to the source material, a young-adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. The film version thankfully must jettison passages of Levithan’s strem-of-consciousness overwriting — Cera gets us into Nick’s head with less fuss — but also loses a little of the authors’ flair for the halting, nervous rhythms of young love. Many scenes from the book’s second half, with Nick and Norah fumbling through one-on-one relating, aren’t particularly cinematic (though they worked well enough in Before Sunrise, an obvious ancestor of the novel), and the movie, to its credit, does give the characters some room to breathe; their relationship isn’t all crammed into montages. But shortcuts are taken, and the film could use some longer dialogue scenes to take further advantage of Dennings and Cera’s gift for small-talk and pauses.

The DVD’s deleted scenes don’t include any such additional reflection; apparently some of them stayed on the page, a casualty of Lorene Scafaria’s otherwise faithful and accomplished adaptation. Instead, the extra scenes emphasize improvised comic bits: alternate takes and side gags from Graynor as well as cameo players Jay Baruchel and Andy Samberg.

The Blu-Ray edition includes two commentary tracks hosted by director Peter Sollett: one with Scafaria, Cohn, and Levithan; and another with Cera, Dennings, and Graynor. The filmmakers’ track also functions as a book commentary of sorts, as all three writers discuss similarities and differences between the two works, and ask each other questions about where the characters, scenes, and changes came from. It’s a refreshing change from the default commentary focus on the most mundane production details: shooting locations, casting, lighting set-ups. The filmmakers also speak about the cast coming together to support the material.

That closeness plays out on the giggly, noisy cast commentary. The young actors quip, talk over each other, and spend an inordinate amount of time explaining which sets, kisses, slapstick, driving scenes, vomit, et cetera, aren’t real. At first, it sounds like they’re sharing a private joke about whether audiences know how movies are made (by, you know, faking things), but after awhile, the delineations make sense: the actors, especially Dennings and Cera, are so natural, and so chummy on the commentary, and placed so well in actual New York locations, that the lines between character, persona, and real people all begin to blur.

The commentary also features a visual component: the actors can make onscreen pen marks, like the instant replay on a football game, technology they utilize primarily in service of doodling on the screen like it’s a blackboard in a classroom. Dennings is particularly fond of scrawling “sexy” over her castmates, and elsewhere on the disc she enacts a puppet show version of the film; her version has far more singing and bear attacks. Even these diversions fit the movie: A little cute, sure, but strikingly real — or at least faked with a lot of heart.

RATING 6 / 10