"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" appears to have everything going against it. It's based on a slim, much-liked young adult novel of the sort that's easy to screw up. It appears bolted together from parts scavenged from old John Hughes films, "Before Sunrise," and "Juno" (from which it swipes both a leading man and a poster font). Worst of all, it's one of those iPod-shuffle movies that leans on its soundtrack instead of its script. Says so right in the title.
So why do I like "Nick and Norah" enough to grade it on the curve? Why might you, if you're willing to let your guard down?
It's not just because of Michael Cera, who plays Nick with the same startled passive-aggressive stare that got him through "Juno." Cera - possibly a one-trick bunny as an actor, but for now the bunny's still really cute - is cast as a New Jersey hipster-nerd reeling from getting dumped by pampered mean girl Tris (Alexis Dziena of "Broken Flowers" and TV's "Invasion").
He obsessively creates please-reconsider-baby mix tapes that she tosses over her shoulder; these are scooped up by Tris's schoolmate Norah (Kat Dennings), who hasn't met Nick but is convinced he's her musical soul mate. A long night in Manhattan chasing after a secret concert by their favorite underground band brings these two together, then drives them apart, then together, then . . . you get the picture. Aiding and abetting the romance are that galloping soundtrack (Vampire Weekend, Bishop Allen, The Real Tuesday Weld, and other bands you've either never heard of or are already over) and Nick's own bandmates, a cackling Greek chorus of queercore rockers led by Thom (Aaron Yoo).
Is it Dennings as Norah who saves the movie? Partly. The actress, best remembered as Catherine Keener's daughter in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," resembles a younger, gloomier Kate Winslet, and part of the fun of "Nick and Norah" is watching the character peek out of the shell of her privileged cynicism. She has a secret - not a game-changing secret, but still - and a pleasant user of a boyfriend (Jay Baruchel from "Tropic Thunder"); most of all Norah seems normal, and richly deserving of someone normal too.
Maybe the film works because of Yoo, Baruchel, and other subsidiary characters scampering happily across the movie's field of view. Really, though, Peter Sollett's the reason. The director's first movie, 2002's "Raising Victor Vargas," was a low-budget slice of New York's Lower East Side that had an achingly human ear for the ways young people fool around and fall in love. "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is Sollett's belated sophomore outing, and it shows him going Hollywood but also pulling Hollywood toward him. He's still in love with love, youth, and Manhattan - for the way the city can remix the rules in one heady night - but this time he's making a fairy tale, complete with magical parking spots for Nick's wheezy Yugo.
A lot of the comedy involves Norah's best galpal, Caroline (Ari Graynor), a party girl who gets drunk early and careens around the city looking for a place to hurl. (She has a wad of gum that by the end of the movie is practically a sidekick.) Graynor's a gifted comedienne but the character's still an "American Pie" extra who has wandered into the wrong movie - she exists to make straight-edge Nick and Norah more appealing. The evil Tris is a sub-Hughes cartoon as well, especially stacked against the charmingly three-dimensional (all right, 2 1/2-dimensional) leads.
Sollett's working with stale material, clearly. He genuinely likes people, though, and his fondness revives "Nick and Norah" and sets it spinning with camaraderie and hope. The generosity of spirit here can remind you of early Jonathan Demme movies or Robert Zemeckis's forgotten 1978 comedy "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" - another tale of bighearted Jersey teens descending on Manhattan in search of the one band that gives life meaning. There it was the Beatles, here it's Where's Fuzzy, and what matters isn't finding the group but the journey there. That and meeting the one stranger who hears life exactly the way you do.