Michael Cera specializes in a fragile, almost traumatized, vulnerability. It was first on display in his role as a teenager in love with his cousin on Arrested Development, then as a besotted teen father-to-be in Juno, and then as a high school senior on the verge of graduation in Superbad. His deer-in-the-emotional-headlights routine barely even seems like acting most of the time. On camera, Cera often looks like he really is a nervous, shy teenager trapped between his adolescent impulses and his nice-guy upbringing.
It’s a great act, playing on both the audience’s identification with the nice guy part of his personality and its knowing sense of superiority about how it would handle the situation so much better. The trouble is that it’s a single note; and now, after five years, it’s hard to see where Cera goes from here. As with his Superbad coconspirators Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, Cera desperately needs a way to escape typecasting, or at least to avoid saturation.
He doesn’t quite get it in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, an iPod-generation mash-up of the road movie, the romantic teen comedy, and the rock ’n’ roll midnight-show cult classic in which Cera plays essentially the same character he’s always played. The movie starts with Cera, as Nick, alone in his underwear in his suburban bedroom, leaving an unbearably long, painfully misguided, and depressingly candid voicemail message for his ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who had dumped him a month before. For the next 85 minutes, it’s a series of sweetly screwball situations marked by missed connections, misdirection, miscommunication, missed signals, and mixed messages.
Nick and his friends set off on a quest to locate a secret, unadvertised concert by their favorite band somewhere in New York City. So do drunk party girl Caroline (Ari Graynor) and her pal Norah (Kat Dennings), a classmate of Tris’ who’s developed a secret crush on Nick without ever meeting him, based only on the mix CDs he’s made for his ex. Tris is also trying to find the show, with her new boyfriend in tow. They all get together, and Norah’s sort-of ex-boyfriend Tal (Jay Baruchel), a boorish scene-crasher who’s trying to get Norah’s studio exec father to listen to his band’s demo, keeps popping up, too. Caroline disappears and is discovered at a gay burlesque Christmas show. Indie folk singer Devendra Banhart dispenses sex advice in a bodega. Nick finally overcomes Tris’ baiting and Norah breaks out of the comfort of her relationship with Tal. And it’s all accompanied by an endless loop of appropriately adolescent indie rock by Banhart, Vampire Weekend, Bishop Allen, The Real Tuesday Weld, We Are Scientists, and The Shout Out Louds.
It seems pointless to note the predictability of the plot. As the old saying goes, it’s not the destination but the journey, and Nick and Norah’s trip through both hip New York and the first blush of their romance is energized by the pair’s chemistry and the just-scuzzy-enough depiction of the city’s rock clubs and late-night hangouts (which fails wholeheartedly in accuracy but hits the perfect note for a teen comedy). The ensemble cast is better-written than the one in Superbad, and Cera’s paired off with an actress who matches his fumbling embarrassment with a front of barely maintained brassiness. Dennings manages a difficult balance of brittle jadedness and girlish enthusiasm. She portrays, better than her co-star does, a real person with real emotions on the edge of adulthood. Where Nick appears to be frozen behind Cera’s habitual nervousness, Norah’s no-nonsense defensiveness is shown for the bluff it is.
But none of it’s ever quite enough. For all its super-hip post-millennial trappings, Nick and Norah doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy, or really even update it. It’s a by-the-numbers rehash, even if the numbers in this case are the 1s and 0s that fill an iPod. What’s worse is that Cera can’t seem to upgrade himself. Unless he gets beyond the tics and anxieties of characters like Nick, he risks becoming as obsolete as the portable CD player Nick has on the dash of his Yugo.