It's nice to see a sweet romantic comedy come together the way Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist does. The bar can be set pretty low for movies where subtext isn't part of the blueprint, and those crappy rom-coms that don't make you laugh or feel all warm and fuzzy kind of make all the other ones look bad. But Nick and Norah sets a good example for the other kids in the class, and it does so on its own merit. It doesn't make any grand, highfalutin attempts to transcend the genre, it just does what it does perfectly well -- and charms your boots off while it's at it.
A one-crazy-night story, the film takes place against the backdrop of the New York music scene, where Nick has reluctantly extracted himself from a pool of self-pity over a recent breakup to play a show with his emo punk band. Meanwhile, Norah arrives at the show on a quest for Where's Fluffy?, a seemingly mythical band that only plays unannounced shows -- requiring continual detective work that pops up here and there throughout the movie. Stuck with the apparently regular duty of getting her amazingly wasted friend Caroline home, and sick of passive-aggressive cattiness from her queen-bee frienemy, Tris, Norah blows a momentary gasket. Determined not to look like the pathetic single friend/doormat once again, she panics and tells Tris that Nick (at the time, just a stranger across the bar) is her boyfriend. Of course, Tris coincidentally turns out to be none other than Nick's dreaded ex, but through the inevitable sequence of crazy events that follow, Nick and Norah end up in his Yugo on a trip that will end up taking all night. They hunt for Caroline (who gets lost in the city with no wits about her, as she somehow remains totally drunk hours after her last shot), they hunt for Fluffy, and they, of course, hunt for each other. A lot of funny scenes spawn from this premise, and there's even bonus laughter in the form of cameos by comedy heavyweights like Andy Samberg and John Cho.
The leads are played by Michael Cera (still glowing from the success of indie juggernaut Juno) and Kat Dennings (the awesomely dry daughter from The 40-Year-Old Virgin). They both play variations on the stock characters they've played in basically everything else -- with Cera working his adorable cringe-free awkwardness, and Dennings relying on her hyper-realistic deadpan sarcasm -- and the movie is better for it. The script is nothing special, but Cera and Dennings bring the magic, partly because they both use a schtick that mimics what actual humans sound like. The way Dennings refuses to raise the timbre of her voice to cutie-pie levels and Cera haltingly delivers half of his lines like they're afterthoughts works in sharp contrast to the stylized movie-speak that actors typically employ in comedies. The forced inflection can be necessary to help provide context, and hopefully make the wacky hijinks less likely to trigger disbelief, but in Nick and Norah, it has a twofold effect. Since the supporting cast members communicate in movie-speak while the two leads sound starkly natural, it plants the seed in your head from the first moment that they're meant for each other -- before the two characters even meet.
There's no doubt plenty of actual chemistry between the two actors, but the fact that they seem to exist in the same entirely separate world from everybody else in the movie creates something really special -- something rarely achieved even by the most respectable romantic comedies. Not to mention that creating believable feelings between the star couple with only a single night of movie chronology to get them together is a pretty big hurdle. With the crux of the story cinched up, the movie is free to make you laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy.