Huey Lewis once wrote “it’s hip to be square.” If I believed in visions and prophecy, I’d say he foresaw the rise of Michael Cera. In the two years since the enraging cancellation of “Arrested Development,” he’s found himself in the two best high school comedies in recent years, and he’s going for a hat-trick with this latest film.
Once again, Cera plays a virginal nice guy who, even when he gets lucky, has little luck with ladies: his Nick’s just been dumped by Tris, the kind of girl normally considered out of bounds for the high school geek, so perhaps it’s just as well nobody ever explains why or how the two were together. He’s the straight bassist in a gay band without a drummer, which forces them to rely on a children’s version of a drum machine, a great dig at the simplicity of whatever “blank”-core is being churned out.
At one of his gigs, he spots his ex with another guy, then finds himself in a lip-lock with a girl named Norah (Kat Dennings), who picked Nick out of the blue to pretend to be her boyfriend to spite … Nick’s ex! Norah, who has been listening to the mix tapes Nick made for Tris, is already in love with him, so inevitably this “five-minute date” must run a little long.
Here, the film makes a bit of a rocky start. Nick’s gay friends, sensing an opportunity to set him up with Norah and get his mind of the nefarious Tris, offer to take Norah’s completely trashed friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) home, while Nick and Norah track down the mysterious indie band Where’s Fluffy? At no point does anyone consider it dangerous for two total strangers to take a girl home. Maybe it's because they're gay, maybe it's because no one thought it through, yet the film exudes such a whimsical charm that you never second-guess it.
Naturally, the drunk friend “escapes,” the ex gets jealous, and Norah, the daughter of a big-time music producer, can get past all the velvet ropes, but must also contend with the leeches who want a gateway to Daddy Moneybags. Everyone in the clubs of New York seems to love Where’s Fluffy?, but the band won’t give away where they’re playing. Maybe that's why they're still playing clubs.
As Nick, Norah and the rest of the gang go from club to club, they find clues about the gig scribbled on bathroom walls. Great, indie rock mixed with some sort of Da Vinci Code. If Kirk Cameron had shown up, I imagined the floor of the theater would have opened up and plunged me into my own personal hell. Ultimately, the chase is a macguffin, with the focus being about these two shy, geeky audiophiles dumping their emotional baggage and connecting with someone possibly meant for them.
Had the film been handled differently, it would have simply been too jumbled or too campy to glean a feel-good story out of it. I’ve not read the book, but I can’t imagine much was changed, and if it was, it certainly worked on screen. Cera, who is always resigned to the role of straight-man, finally has a love interest to play off of and make himself the focus of the film rather than the friend of the snarky guy or gal with all the great lines. Dennings has the same style of deadpan as Cera, one that makes it impossible to see a joke coming until it’s completely out, and sometimes not even then.
She’s also somewhat reminiscent of Kate Winslet: someone who doesn’t conform to Hollywood’s "standards" of beauty, but who is so striking and alluring she points out how absurd those standards really are. Compare her to Alexis Dziena, who plays Tris; Wikipedia lists her age as 24, which is about 4 years younger than I would have guessed. She fits the usual starlet bill, but something looks…off about her when compared to someone outside the normal Hollywood range. It’s not that she's ugly (and not that such nonsense matters), but there is a falsity to her appearance.
“Nick and Norah” is not a perfect film; there remains the implausibility that Norah, who is friends with cruel and omniscient gossips and has been sneaking mix tapes from Tris’ trash, does not even know what Nick looked like until this night. What it is is a charming night out full of all the teenage optimism without the condescending tone that too often comes with it in Hollywood (ironic, considering that’s a town full of people who never really grow up). It's Martin Scorsese's After Hours for the post-Guiliani era, in which the streets of New York seem less like death traps and more a giant playground.
There are no great victories or tragedies, no great life lessons learned, but are those necessary? I walked out of the theater cheerier for the experience, a rarity for me, and for cinema in general these days, which is cynical and bleak. Now, on DVD, I shall keep it nearby, like Juno, for when I'm feeling a bit down. While it doesn't try to tackle the issues Juno does, both engender such a wave of euphoria for me that I never tire of them.