Over the last few weeks I’ve seen Superbad more than once and had innumerable conversations about it. The dialogues all start the same way: ‘is it actually funny?’ When I emphatically assure friends, enemies and Republicans that it is fucking hilarious, not merely ‘funny’, I’m always met with the same rebuttal: ‘really?’
I can see where that’s coming from. Superbad is the movie that, for a less talented group of filmmakers and comedians, would set in motion a public backlash. The people who loved The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are so ready to believe that lightning can’t strike a third time for the comedic crew loosely headed by Judd Apatow. (Here he’s merely a prodcuer.)
And while both those films are wonderful, for a pure Friday night at the movies, I’ll take Superbad. How can that be?
To be fair, the skepticism is aimed at a script featuring the most tired premise of all: high school boys trying to get laid and be cool. Making things worse, it was actually written in high school by younger versions of the men we now know as newly crowned comedy star Seth Rogan and friend/writing pal Evan Goldberg.
To leaven the taste of stale high school comedy, Rogen and Goldberg have taken several important steps. Primary among them was obviously the completion of puberty. This may have begun as a bunch of dick jokes but it has evolved into something more palatable to people who aren’t most concerned more with avoiding a fight after lunch.
Plus, there’s the parallel story of Fogell, aka McLovin, the skinny geek who scores a fake ID and spends a night on the town with a couple of manchild cops. As McLovin, newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a flat-out revelation. I’ll be crushed if he squanders the good will built up here, because he plays McLovin’s mixture of insecurity, fear and braggadocio to perfection. Cast someone else and this entire plotline might sink; it would be so easy for McLovin and his cop pals (Seth Rogen and the memorable, wonderful Bill Heder) to take the film on a massive detour.
Fogell is fun, but not so much so that you don’t want to come back to the strained friendship between friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera). Cera doesn’t diverge wildly from his Arrested Development mode, but he and Jonah Hill mesh so well together that it doesn’t matter. You won’t have much pity for Fogell’s situation — the kid’s pretty much got it made – but you definitely will for Evan and Seth, even while you’re coughing your lungs out laughing.
There’s a debased and therefore fleeting pleasure to be had listening to Cera, Hill and Mintz-Plasse spout off crass vulgarities. But that gives way to the lasting pleasure of watching them act out so succinctly the same insecurities and pounding nascent sexual drive that we’d like to forget. And when the two come together, like when Fogell tries to joke, ‘I have a boner!’ the film isn’t a slice of fried gold, it’s the whole goddamn brick.
Thing is, the Superbad mains all talk just like boys in high school. Accordingly, their grip on sex is far less tight than their grips on their cocks. They do me proud, actually — usually I’d be cringing to have someone point out so directly what I was like, but it’s easy to beam and say ‘yeah, that was me!’ when you’re with an audience that’s close to asphyxiating while laughing.
A large part of the film’s impact, however, comes from the realization that, while it’s chock full o’ dick jokes, this isn’t Porky’s or American Pie or any of that claptrap. The girls here are a lot smarter, or at least more self-aware, than the guys. Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Marth MacIsaac), the objects of Seth and Evan’s affections, stray far from the boys’ stereotypical idea of what girls should be, and therefore also from the generalized presentation of women in past movies like this one. Watching Seth and Evan realize this is as satisfying as the steady stream of gags.
Greg Mottola knows when he’s close to going off the rails, and that’s where Cera comes in. He’s kept fairly well in check for much of the film, but is occasionally set loose to sing an impromptu a cappella in a room full of coked up and very threatening dudes, or to practice his game in the bathroom while getting wasted. Any time the film needs a lift, he’s there to provide it.
Not that any part of the film ever really plays it safe. So we get an amazing montage of drawn cocks with a Tiananmen Square nod that will probably keep killing me, fights with a hobo, and a blast of a scene with menstrual blood that I don’t dare spoil.
Vulgar, dirty and juvenile as it is, Superbad is Best of 2007 material. It’s a comedy that will endure and grow as time passes because, as filthy as it often is, it’s also honest without sticking an out of breath, vulnerable audience with bullshit treacle to sum up the agony and ecstasy of our sad teenage years.