I need my nuts, man.
— Evan (Michael Cera)
When his best friend Seth (Jonah Hill) comes to pick him up for school, Evan (Michael Cera) can’t get him out of the driveway before his mother comes out to say hello. This leaves him the passenger’s seat, caught between mom’s cleavage and Seth’s gape, as she leans down to bid them goodbye. It’s sad, she says, that they’ll be split up in the fall, when Evan goes to Dartmouth and Seth doesn’t, because he didn’t get in. She sighs, walks away, and Seth announces, “I’m truly jealous that you got to suck on those tits when you were a baby.”
In another movie, this would be the punchline. But Superbad goes the next step. Evan doesn’t miss a beat with his raucous comeback, all the while maintaining his sweet demeanor. In another, perhaps earlier version of this movie, Seth, chubby and fuzzy-haired, would be the funny kid, with quietly pleasant Evan the nerdy straight man. Here, however, they share roles, sensibilities, desires, and above all, fears. High school virgins equipped with attitude and wit and resentment, they are, at the same time, kids who have no idea how to manage being high school virgins.
It’s a subtle point, made amid a barrage of penis jokes and anxieties. The chatter is incessant: from the car to the convenience store to the car to the parking lot to the science lab — the boys are typically obsessed. (A brief detour into Seth’s flashback reveals his particular proclivity for making “pictures of dicks,” cute little cartoons with legs and hairstyles and jewelry which he stores in his “dick treasure chest,” a Ghostbusters lunchbox.) Hand jobs, blow jobs, boners, hot girls, Orson Welles: no matter the seeming subject matter, they can’t stop fretting about sex, or more precisely, the idea of sex. And when they’re invited to a graduation party, even assigned to pick up the liquor (having access to a fake ID), they are beside themselves. They have great expectations… and they can’t possibly meet them.
Here, the plot heads into some very familiar territory, the teen sex comedy pumped up with R-rated language, leavened with genuine-seeming compassion (the precursors also praised as “saving the genre”: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, American Pie). Seth and Evan team up with the supremely geeky Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose newly procured driver’s license deems him “McLovin,” a 25-year-old organ donor from Hawaii. It’s a stretch, but the boys are transported when the object of Seth’s especial longing, Jules (Emma Stone), gives them a handful of cash and a shopping list: beer, Ouzo, rum, a special vodka that’s the favorite of Evan’s crush, Becca (Martha MacIsaac). And so their night’s adventure begins, each hoping that his girl will become drunk enough that he can be “that mistake” she will rue in the future. (Seth’s dream version of his evening: “I had like, a general outline: go down on her for like, several hours, she would love that.”)
For all their focus on girls, Seth and Evan form the film’s center. Their longtime, deeply earnest and sometimes desperate friendship is highlighted in their rat-a-tat obscenity-laced exchanges, but it’s made downright pretty in a surprisingly tender few moments that come late in the film (the little plink sound Seth makes in lieu of language to express his affection is close to sublime). This focus means the movie doesn’t even try to fathom Jules or Becca, who remain much-adored ciphers throughout. This is something of an improvement on the effort in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up to bring women’s desires in line with the men’s noisily comedic cluelessness, but it also intensifies the nostalgia for a time when boys could be in love with each other and not feel responsible for how badly they comprehended the other half of the population.
Evan and Seth are often charming as they bumble their way toward an approximated “cool.” Unfortunately, Superbad also takes a big chunk of time to follow another plotline, once the trio is split up. Nearly busted in the convenience store, Fogell spends most of his evening riding along with cops Slater (Seth Rogen) and Michaels (Bill Hader). Distracted by calls and opportunities to relive their own adolescence, the cops invite Fogell to play with their cruiser lights and their weapons (“What’s it like to have guns?” “It is awesome! Like having two cocks instead of one if one of your cocks could kill someone”). We get it: boys will forever be boys. They will get drunk, fall down, crash their cars, and bond over their unquenchable lust for pussy.
And so the movie delivers a certain quotient of rowdy stuff, including some slapstick and menstrual blood, a couple of bong hits and girls in bras. It may be worth wondering, for a minute anyway, how the teen-sex formula retains its appeal. Most obviously, each reinvention speaks to a next generation, with timely gags and allusions (MySpace, Yoda, Mr. T) and ups the supposed obscenity ante. And yet, the focus remains unchanged: scared, eager boys make their clumsy ways toward a semblance of self-awareness. Maturity, that’s another story.