Sunday, September 28, 2008

'Nick and Norah' do New York

**1/2 out of ****

Whoever said opposites attract clearly hasn't met Nick and Norah. After a summer of raunchy R-rated, laugh-out-loud comedies such as "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" turns down the volume a bit with a romantic high school comedy.

Michael Cera ("Superbad," "Juno") stars as Nick. Heartbroken by his girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), Nick becomes a recluse, but his band members (Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron) hope to cheer him up by convincing him to play at their New York City gig.

One girl at the gig is Norah (Kat Dennings), a straight-laced student who has been dragged there by her drunken friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor). After one of Norah's classmates teases her about coming to the club without a date, she grabs the first guy she sees and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend.

The guy happens to be Nick and the classmate turns out to be Tris. With the rest of the night ahead of them, Nick and Norah hopscotch around the Big Apple trying to find drunken Caroline and their favorite band Fluffy, which is playing at a secret venue. While looking for Fluffy, they find love along the way.

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is based on a book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. First-time screenwriter Lorene Scafaria has a knack for dialogue that's sweet and touching, but misses the funny bone. Director Peter Sollett does a hip job that surpasses most of the recent glop in this field. He also has a great ear for independent music, although you wish at points some other genres were explored. Unfortunately, the film falls prey to predictability and sloppy transitions.

Cera and Dennings ("The House Bunny") have a fair amount of chemistry between them, but it seems forced or missing at times. Dennings pulls off a convincing performance as a timid spirit, while Cera stars as a dejected musician.

The supporting cast helps the movie move along, but sometimes a little too bluntly. Yoo stands out as Nick's best friend, but there is not much depth to his character. Graynor steals most of the laughs stumbling around New York City, though she seems out of place, as if she's in a different slapstick movie. The film has a few quirky charms, but mainly remixes the same old tunes.

As far as romantic comedies go, should "Nick and Norah" pop up on your movie playlist, you'll be in for an enjoyable time.

'Burn' a hit for Coen brothers

*** out of ****

What happens when an amateur duo of dim-witted doofuses beats the head honchos of the CIA at their own game? The answer is found in "Burn After Reading," a smart film about not so smart people.

Hot off of their success from four-time Academy Award winner (including Best Picture) "No Country for Old Men," brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, do a 360 with their new absurd spoof comedy. After variable success in the genre with hits ("The Big Lebowski") and misses ("Intolerable Cruelty"), "Burn" is without a doubt a hit.

Part of an all-star cast, John Malkovich stars as the angry, foul-mouthed CIA analyst Osborne Cox. The movie begins with Cox getting fired for having a drinking problem, angrily retorting to his colleague, "You're a Mormon! Next to you, everyone's got a drinking problem."

With his newfound spare time, spent mostly drinking and lounging, he decides to write his memoir, to the indifference of his icy wife (Tilda Swinton).

The plot gains traction when a disk containing parts of Osborne's memoir is somehow left on the locker room floor at a gym named Hardbodies. Mistakenly taken as CIA secret information, gym employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who is hankering for a plastic surgery makeover and the fitness-obsessed Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), see it as an opportunity for easy money.

As the two carry out their half-baked blackmail scheme, Linda starts to date a married Treasury Department employee, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is having an affair with Mrs. Cox. As all of their lives converge, the Coens create the perfect set up for chaos, murder and hilarity.

Instead of an all-out parody, this film is more of a briskly-paced CIA comedy caper -- Joel and Ethan take the typical craziness out of a spy movie and push it to the max with their imaginative screenplay.

Playing for laughs, not awards, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are still at the top of their games and give some of the most entertaining performances of the year.

J.K. Simmons deserves a mention as the baffled CIA superior who tries to follow the blackmail-murder-love triangle situation. At the end of the film he asks, "So, what did we learn?" The answer is "nothing."

However, like a good episode of "Seinfeld," learning much about nothing is rewarding even on its own, as long as it keeps us laughing.