One of the great teen-movie subgenres is “that crazy 24 hours that changed everything,” which has given us classics (“Sixteen Candles,” “Dazed and Confused”) as well as movies that are merely OK (“Adventures in Babysitting,” “Can’t Hardly Wait”).
Put “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” in that latter category — despite an appealing cast and a tone of mildly sardonic sweetness, the movie is missing that X factor that makes you understand why the characters fall for each other and gets you to root for them being together. It felt like the movie put a sheet of hard plastic between the audience and the screen, preventing full immersion into what could have been a real charmer of a comedy.
Put-upon Nick (Michael Cera) is the bassist for a drummer-less New Jersey rock band, The Jerk Offs, of which he is the only heterosexual member. Even though he’s still depressed about getting dumped by his pretty, unfaithful girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), he loads up his Yugo and drives into Manhattan to play a gig.
Also heading into the city that night are Tris and her classmate frenemies Norah (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Ari Graynor). Norah has never met Nick but harbors a crush on him based on the mix CDs he’s burned for the unappreciative Tris. (Shades of the character in “Metropolitan” who falls in love with a boy based on the discarded love letters he wrote to her roommate.)
Norah and Nick have a meet-cute at the Jerk Offs show, and Nick’s bandmates are thrilled that he’s interested in someone besides toxic Tris. One makeover later — because all gay men in Hollywood movies exist only to lug around Wonderbras and facilitate heterosexual romance — the musicians send Nick and Norah off to find a secret show by a legendary underground band while they take attempt to take the hilariously inebriated Caroline home.
If there’s one aspect of adolescent fantasy that director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) gets exactly right, it’s the idea of New York City as a playground where minors can always get into bars and where there’s plenty of free parking all night long. (Manhattan hasn’t looked like this much of a teenage dream since “The World of Henry Orient.”) The new generation of indie-rock kids will no doubt love all the band-name-dropping (as well as the cameo appearance by hipster musician Devendra Banhart) even if it will eventually make the film as dated as, say, the “Empire Records” soundtrack.
And if you think that shared taste in music alone is enough to make two teens fall in love with each other, then maybe “Nick & Norah” will work better for you than it did for me. I wanted to get swept up in the movie, but I never had that moment where I was convinced that the two lead characters belonged together, even though Dennings is charming and witty and Cera has his sensitive hangdog-hipster routine down cold. (Frances Farmer once referred to her famous co-star as “Cary Grant being Cary Grant being Cary Grant,” and if Cera doesn’t diversify his portfolio soon, his peaches are going to get a little too moldy, if you know what I mean.)
“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” comes very close to working, but it’s ultimately a let-down. Or as the characters in the film might put it, it’s a iTunes Free Single of the Week that doesn’t make you want to download the whole album.