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Puppy Love: Peter Sollett again captures awkwardness in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist 

Oh, how awkward.It took five years for director Peter Sollett to follow-up his sparkling feature debut Raising Victor Vargas with his adaptation of Rachel Cohn

click to enlarge Oh, how awkward.
  • Oh, how awkward.
Oh, how awkward.
It took five years for director Peter Sollett to follow-up his sparkling feature debut Raising Victor Vargas with his adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. And while the road along the way surely was littered with Hollywood-typical stories of aborted projects and collapsing funding, he should take comfort in this: He has now established himself as cinema's reigning genius of awkward young love.

Maybe a filmmaker might consider it problematic to be so pigeonholed. It becomes too easy to ignore the other facets of someone's talents, like when Quentin Tarantino became "fast-talking, pop-culture-referencing super-violence guy" and the world conveniently ignored his profoundly moral humanism. But it can also mean that a talented director gets to keep working. And when you've seen something as effortlessly charming as Raising Victor Vargas followed up with this sweet little keeper, you want Sollett to keep working.

He starts off with some pretty solid source material in this story of two bridge-and-tunnel teens who find themselves together on one New York City night. Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive guy still mooning over being dumped by his ex Tris (Alexis Dziena) when he's not playing bass as the token straight boy in a queercore band. Norah (Kat Dennings) is Tris' private school classmate who knows of Nick from the killer mix CDs Tris dumps in the school trash and loathes Tris's queen-bee pity. So when all three of them find themselves at the same nightclub, Norah pleads with "random stranger" Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend-only later realizing that this is "Tris's Nick."

It's a set-up only slightly more gimmicky than the book's device of alternating chapters from each protagonist's-and each author's-point of view. The devices that end up keeping Nick and Norah together for the rest of the night-alternately, tracking down Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and finding a super-secret concert by their mutual favorite hip band-also could have ended up feeling forced. But a meet-cute rarely rings hollow if the chemistry ends up working, and there's clearly a zing between these two sarcastic puppy-dogs. Cera brings both instant likeability and a sly intelligence to Nick, while Dennings matches him in both categories.

Nick & Norah is at its best when the two stars are tiptoeing their way through their initial connection. He gives them room to riff off of Lorene Scafaria's screenplay, providing plenty of tart one-liners like Nick's response to how safe it is leaving the passed-out Caroline with Nick's gay bandmates ("If anyone is going to get raped in that van, it's going to be a guy."). Sollett knows when to back off and watch them getting to know one another, and he crafts one beautifully discrete sequence involving Nick and Norah's initial ... um, physical moment together. With Sollett at the reins, everything about this nascent romance feels genuine.

He's not quite as successful when the plot drifts to peripheral matters. For a while the inebriated Caroline is out wandering on her own, leading to some broad slapstick like the ongoing saga of Caroline's resilient piece of chewing gum. There's the kind of teen-centered comedy an audience probably expects, and there's the kind that Peter Sollett is comfortable working with-and they're not always the same thing.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist ★★★✩✩

Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena. Directed by Peter Sollett. Rated PG-13.

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