Teen comedies will be greatly diminished when Michael Cera grows out of them. His ability to seem both lightweight and impassioned makes him the perfect überadolescent. His presence did much to cauterize the raunchier passages in "Superbad," and he was marvelous as Ellen Page's unlikely, yet perfect, love object in "Juno." (He was unlikely because most teen movies favor party animal Romeos, and perfect because you couldn't imagine Juno with anybody else.)
Cera has his biggest role to date in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," and the movie needs every minute of him. He plays Nick, a Yugo-driving New Jersey high school senior and bass guitar player who is still mooning over the fickle girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) who recently dumped him. He keeps hoping he'll win her back by making killer indie-rock mix CDs for her, but instead he ends up paired with one of her sometime friends, Norah (Kat Dennings), whose father is a record industry mogul. Together, in the course of a single night, they uneasily make their way across lower Manhattan in search of a secret concert by their favorite underground band.
Based on a popular novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and echoing everything from "American Graffiti" to "Before Sunrise," this is a movie that doesn't know how to say "no." Every moment expertly capturing the tingly tensions of teen love is matched by goofball gross-outs that are more disgusting than funny.
It's as if screenwriter Lorene Scafaria and director Peter Sollett, whose first film was the terrific "Raising Victor Vargas," didn't trust the story's emotional core. It's rare these days to encounter a teen-oriented movie that respects adolescents for being more than sex-crazed head cases, so it's doubly frustrating that "Nick and Norah," which intermittently is quite touching, so often condescends to its audience by going all goony on us.
What makes the film work in spite of itself is Sollett's sympathy for his characters and the teamwork between Cera and Dennings, whose winsome sultriness seems entirely unaffected. It's clear from the moment Nick and Norah meet that they are meant for each other, which is as it should be. After all, she has been doting on Nick's mixes, which she retrieved from Tris's wastebasket, even before she met him. The conceit here is that if a boy and a girl love the same music, that means they're in love. Who am I to argue with such poetic whimsy? Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including teen drinking, sexuality, language, and crude behavior.)