Do you believe in love at first listen? Early in Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist, an adaptation of the popular young adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, high school senior Kat Dennings (best known as Catherine Keener's daughter in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) watches as her spoiled semi-friend Alexis Dziena throws away the latest mix CD from her ex-boyfriend. Dennings fishes the disc, titled Road To Closure Vol. 12, out of the trash. It's not the first time she's picked up one of the gifts Dziena's discarded and she's finding herself a little bit smitten with their compiler. Anyone who doesn't see that as a pretty solid foundation on which to build a relationship might have trouble with the movie, a film in love with unpopular pop music, the possibilities of New York after midnight, and the fumbling first gestures of new romance.
Michael Cera plays the kid behind the mixes, another senior at a different New Jersey school whose downtime consists largely of moping for his ex and serving as the only straight member of a queercore band called, for the moment, The Jerk Offs. Cera and Dennings meet at a Jerk Offs show and spend the rest of the evening getting to know one another, sorting through their emotional baggage, caring for Dennings' drunk companion (Ari Graynor), and searching for the secret location of a rare gig by the legendarily elusive band Where's Fluffy?.
It's the journey that matters, however, and sometimes the film doesn't seem to know where it's going. Director Peter Sollett made a charmingly assured debut with 2002's Raising Victor Vargas and the best parts of Nick And Norah revive Vargas' unhurried feel. Cera and Dennings have a disarmingly unstable chemistry and the scenes that simply let them hang out find a pleasant groove that never quite spills out into the film around them. Moments of madcap teen comedy feel tacked on out of obligation and some of the stumbling blocks between the pair never seem as formidable as the characters treat them.
The film drags as it reaches the hours before sunrise, but Cera and Denning's passive-aggressive flirtation keeps its pulse alive. As they develop feelings neither could have expected as the night began, they talk around each other, offering the sorts of clues they're more used to burying in the lyrics of carefully sequenced songs that say what they're only learning to say for themselves.