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Teenage love affair
'Nick & Norah' is a good -- not great -- romantic comedy

"Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" (PG-13)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

If you were to set "American Graffiti" in the present day and punked it up a bit, it would be this movie. It's doubtful that's the impression writer Lorene Scafaria or director Peter Sollett wanted to leave. They kind of seem to be looking for something more along the lines of "Before Sunrise" meets "High Fidelity."

As dangerous and anti-establishment as it all appears on the surface, the movie is a relatively tame and predictable mainstream romantic comedy. You know how it's going to end mere minutes after it starts, and if not for the performances of the actors playing the title characters, it would largely be a waste of your time.

For the third time in a row in a major feature film, Michael Cera portrays a meek, unassuming teen far too eager to please with a severe case of fumble-mouth. Cera is good at playing this type of role and is endlessly endearing as Nick in this movie as well as "Juno" and "Superbad," but he's officially reached his career "aw-shucks," geeky boy-next-door quota.

Kat Dennings as Norah is in approximately the same boat as Nick. She's fresh out of a recently ended romance, and her full-body stiff-upper-lip can't mask her jittery, bowl-of-jelly insides. Unlike Nick, Norah is a rich girl whose dark/artsy leanings make her something of an outsider at her all-girls school. This role is a minor stretch for Dennings, who played a much more secure and mysterious teen in the recent, vastly under-appreciated "Charlie Bartlett."

Nick is the bass player for a fledgling punk band that is the warm-up act at a bar where Norah and her always interesting party-girl sidekick Caroline (Ari Graynor) are fluttering about. Also in the crowd is Tris (Alexis Dziena), Nick's diminutive, cruel ex-flame and her mostly vacant new beau. Conveniently, Tris attends the same school as Norah and they despise each other.

In an only-in-the-movies moment, Norah calls on Nick to be her pretend boyfriend so she won't look like a complete loser in Tris' eyes. Seeing how this will up his value to both girls, Nick goes along with the ruse and the teeny-tiny plot seed is sown.

Using New York City as a backdrop in any movie is a great idea, but Sollett's Big Apple doesn't provide what one would call ideal tourist-friendly visuals. The sets and characters are grungy and disheveled with everything and everyone save for the prissy Tris needing a good wash. The alt-rock soundtrack alluded to in the title is OK but far from memorable, unless you're a 15-year-old girl.

Though we know the outcome and are called upon to navigate the almost non-existent plot, watching Cera and Dennings' characters bicker, squabble and exchange goo-goo eye glances makes everything slightly worth it. The filmmakers also deserve bonus points for including a couple of gay characters without drenching them in the familiar negative stereotypes and making macho lover-boys look like complete fools.

The movie is good, but not great, and it won't show you anything you haven't already seen done better before. It will make for an acceptable, second go-to rental when it comes out on DVD, which will likely be sooner rather than later. (Sony/Columbia)