[16 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If you ever wondered what Sixteen Candles, the John Hughes teen comedy from the mid-‘80s would look and sound like fashioned after the aesthetic mindset of someone like Kevin Smith, Superbad is the answer. Gloriously profane, single minded in its ‘anything for sex’ approach, and expert at capturing how real adolescents express themselves, this bookend presentation from the Judd Apatow party posse (in this case, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Greg Mottola) proves that 2007 definitely belongs to the former Freaks and Geeks patrol. Though not as consistently funny as June’s jocular Knocked Up, this far more ephemeral farce turns the last days of high school (ala Dazed and Confused) into a wickedly wild walk on the decidedly drunk and horny side of adolescence. It also shows that youth’s impracticality and fearless nature can be parlayed into one helluva good time.
Ever since they were small, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) have been buddies. Pals. Inseparable best friends. They’ve watched each other’s back, and supported one another through many of life’s pre-college pitfalls. But now senior year is almost over and the unthinkable is about to happen. Evan got into Darmouth. So did the dorky tag-along Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Seth must settle for State, meaning he will not be joining his associates in the Fall. And while they deny any possible problem with this arrangement, inside each guy is hurting. Luckily, a hot chick named Jules is throwing a party, and she wants Seth to provide the booze. Since he’s underage, he must rely on Fogell’s fake ID. Matters get a little complicated during the alcohol run, and before you know it, the police are involved, Seth and Evan hate each other, and everyone finds themselves miles away from the ribald revelry.
Like the best elements of the last three decades of big screen comedy, Superbad utilizes smart dialogue, brilliant situational satire, loads of gross out gags, and just a smidgen or post-millennial irony to turn growing up into a spectator sport. So laugh out loud funny at times that you wonder why other so-called humor fests are so haphazard and dull, this incredibly vulgar vamp is the antidote to the current crappy Hollywood excuses for sidesplitting (are you listening, Chuck and Larry???). There will be those that balk at all the boner humor, who hear Seth describe a grade school obsession with drawing male genitalia and cringe at the lack of subtlety in the material. But just as they proved this past June, no one understands the unspoken human dynamic, the part of us that we hide from the rest of the public, better than this clever crew. We may not want to admit it, but something like Superbad expertly exposes what we’re secretly thinking inside.
Granted, the movie has its missteps. The acquiescing cops, the loser law enforcers who end up playing patsies to all the teen shenanigans, really don’t work as characters or creative choices. Played by screenwriter Rogen and SNL’s Bill Hader, they’re very weak links in what is otherwise a solid satiric set up. After all, kids cracking up over their coming of age doesn’t need the support of stunted adults to justify its rule breaking logistics. While they provide some clever lines, they tend to drag the narrative down. Even more troublesome is the second act slip into an odd adult/adolescent standoff. When Evan and Seth accept a ride from a practically pedophilic passerby, his entire in-car conversation is shady. Once they arrive at the promised liquor-rich shindig, things turn ugly quickly. While the sequence does contain one of the movie’s best running ‘gags’ (manifesting all definitions of that word), it tends to destabilize the otherwise jovial juvenilia.
What does work here, and works brilliantly, mind you, is the interaction between Cera, Hill, and newcomer Mintz-Plasse. Years of sitcom saturation have convinced us that teenagers all talk like acerbic standups, using their limited time onscreen to provide worthless one-liners as substitutes for smarts. Here, Rogen and Goldberg give us the true sound of how sexually insecure males speak. Granted, the dialogue is overloaded with words that, two decades ago, kids wouldn’t be caught dead delivering (especially not to girls), but like all good observational humorists, these guys have decided to wisely change with the changing times. This gives Superbad a richness that underscores the complete lack of tact the characters exhibit. In addition, the last act return to their little boy roots is hilarious, since it illustrates how ill-prepared they really are for their future as adults. It’s a nice touch in a movie that spends a lot of time in outlandish excess.
While American Pie may claim the status as first film to make girls as gonzo as the guys pursuing them, Superbad is equally refreshing in this regard. It used to be that females were the object of horny male fantasy and relegated to eye candy, empty and vacuous without a significant emotional or psychological stance. True T and A, that was all. But thanks to a new, more knowing view about the battle of the sexes, ladies are just as lewd as the guys. In addition, the movie also comprehends the need to manufacture a kind of character recognizability. Mintz-Plasse gets the scene stealing sequence surrounding his fake ID (and the soon to be schoolyard mantra, “McLovin”) but we also get Hill’s hilarious lack of inner monologue and Cera stumblebum sweetness. Together they fuse in a way that makes anything they do seem interesting and engaging. If those crazy cops hadn’t shown up every 30 seconds to drag the movie off into the realm of the ridiculous, Superbad could stand as this decade’s American Graffiti. Or, at the very least, it’s Porky’s. This is one of the most insightful films about growing up lost and lusting every made.
Though it seems like a thoroughly modern experience, Superbad does have a delicious throwback mentality, a sense of humiliating history reminiscent of those days in back of the classroom, trading newly learned dirty jokes with your fellow classmates. It’s as smart as it is silly, as warm as it is wanton. There will be a few who shiver at the plethora of blue words, and when all is said and done, the narrative does seem a tad slight. We don’t really learn any major lessons here except friendship is forever and chicks dig dorks who get their butt kicked. Destined to make stars out of its quasi-celebrity cast, this will be a film many remember as their own rite of entertainment passage. If audiences weren’t convinced of the Apatow edge by the one-two punch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up! , Superbad supplies the slam dunk to finalize the thesis. Unlike most makers of movie comedy, this is one group of guys who understand how to make viewers literally scream with laughter.
Superbad - Trailer