Superbad is excellent proof of the old saying that it’s not what you do but how you do it. The movie’s plot is old hat: teenage misfits are desperate to party and have sex before high school graduation. Haven’t there already been dozens of other pictures with that exact premise? Yes, there have – but few of them have had the wit and truthfulness that Superbad brings to the table. This film is brutally honest in depicting the raunchy manner in which teenage boys talk to each other, but it also has a realistic sense of male friendships. It’s a basic truth that guys generally don’t tell each other how they feel; expressions of caring are buried beneath taunts and insults and shared adventures. There are many big laughs here, all of which are made funnier because they spring from an absolutely realistic depiction of adolescent buddy-hood.
Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”) and Jonah Hill (Accepted) play Evan and Seth, high school seniors who are obsessed – as most high schoolers are – with partying and sex. Not that they do much of either. That’s the problem. Videogames and internet porn have taken the place of those things in their lives. A long-standing plan to room together in college falls apart when Seth doesn’t get into the same university as Evan. Neither of them overtly expresses it, but you can sense that there is some anxiety over going forward without one another. Realizing that they have only a few months together before going their separate ways, they determine to start doing all the things they’ve been too scared to do.
Luck smiles on them when the pretty, popular girls they like ask them to get alcohol for a big house party. Seth and Evan figure that if they can get booze, they will be heroes in the girls’ eyes. And, more importantly, they might be able to get laid. For help, they turn to their doofus buddy Fogell (newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse, in a star-making debut). He has just procured a fake ID that identifies him as a Hawaiian organ donor with the singular name “McLovin.” A plan to purchase the booze at a liquor store goes massively wrong. McLovin ends up in the charge of two inept cops (played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen), while Evan and Seth try to swipe alcohol from another party. Later, they come face-to-face with their dream girls, learn a life lesson in the process, and verbalize some unexpressed feelings about what their friendship means.
Superbad was written by Seth Rogen and longtime best friend/writing partner Evan Goldberg; it’s probably no coincidence that the main characters share their first names. The producer is Judd Apatow, who has recently emerged as Hollywood’s comedy MVP. The writer/director of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up always seems to be associated with projects that feature inventive, envelope-pushing humor that is heavily rooted in characterization. One of the keys to Apatow’s success is doubtlessly that he assembles a good team around him. You may not realize it at first glance, but this movie was made by people who have worked together before and bring out the best in each other. Rogen appeared in Apatow’s previous two features, as well as his acclaimed TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” He also wrote some episodes of the latter. Helmer Greg Mottola directed several episodes of “Undeclared.” Jonah Hill had a cameo in Virgin and a supporting role in Knocked Up. (He was the guy who encouraged Rogen’s character to pay for a “smushmortion.”) “Undeclared” co-star Carla Gallo pops up in a cameo as a young woman who dirty dances with Seth at a party, with hilarious results. It’s not anything you’d consciously feel, but the fact that Superbad was made by old colleagues makes it run like a well-oiled machine. What might have been crass and obnoxious is instead hip and hysterical.
What does it mean to say that a movie is funny? I could tell you that Superbad made me laugh loudly and that it made me laugh often, but somehow that doesn’t really convey the experience. The truth is that this is the kind of comedy that causes you to throw your head back, stomp your feet, and pound on the armrest. The laughs are so big that your whole body reacts, not just your mouth. Raunchy, R-rated humor is not for every taste, but it is for mine. (I can’t help it; this stuff cracks me up.) There’s a lot of crude sex talk here, but that’s how young men really converse sometimes. Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse sell the dialogue in such a way that it’s vulgar without ever making you dislike the characters.
Other audacious moments involve a graphic depiction of Seth’s childhood psychological issues and Evan feeling humiliated after accidentally punching his dream girl in the breast. And the effect of Seth’s dirty dance with that drunken woman…well, that has to have really happened to someone somewhere, right? The key to outrageous humor is truth. Slap it on the screen gratuitously and it simply offends; do it with honesty and observation and you have comedy gold. Superbad may look at the naughtier side of adolescence, but it does so with authenticity.
Underneath all the raunchiness – and the 176 different uses of the F-word – there is something strangely affecting about this story. I had two best friends in high school. After graduation, two of us went to different colleges; the third was a couple years behind and therefore remained in high school. The intervening years must have caused me to repress some memories that Superbad brought back. I had forgotten how scary that was, knowing that I was moving to a new chapter in my life while my friends were moving on to new chapters in different books. Seth and Evan are going through the same thing. They are realizing that life will soon change and circumstances will never be the same again. This causes them to evaluate what their friendship really means. The humor in the film is what draws you in, but it’s the story’s underlying heart that elevates Superbad way beyond most teen comedies.
Michael Cera and Jonah Hill are really great together, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes for a nice third leg of the tripod. (I always hate it when critics refer to something as “an instant classic” but I do believe that McLovin will achieve pop culture immortality.) The actors have the tough task of selling the harder-edged stuff in a way that doesn’t allow it to turn into exploitation, and they manage it with considerable skill. There’s a chemistry between the three of them that is, in itself, pleasurable to watch. No matter what vile things come out of the characters’ mouths, you always root for them because, at the most basic level, you know these are good guys. They want to party, but they will go on to be responsible men with good jobs. They want to get girls drunk and have sex with them, but their bark is worse than their bite, and they have an undeniable respect for the young women they pursue. They’re going their own ways, but there will always be a bond between them.
The last few years have been a boon for fans of gut-busting comedy: Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Borat, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, Clerks 2. All insanely funny movies. This one deserves to stand alongside them. Superbad is super-hilarious.
( 1/2 out of four)
Superbad is rated R for pervasive crude and sexual content, strong language, drinking, some drug use and a fantasy/comic violent image. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Superbad
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