Morals and Ethics and Carnal Forbearance
Superbad / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 17, 2007 | Comments ()
Seth Rogen has said that he started working on the Superbad script when he was 13, and it’s not hard to see he’s probably (hopefully) telling the truth: The film shares an 8th-grader’s unabashed love of all things sexual, its characters walking around in a perpetual hormone-fueled haze as they try in their own ways to get laid, and it’d be a little unsettling if Rogen at 25 was able to churn out a screenplay so in love with its own penis. Thankfully, Rogen — who co-wrote the script with Evan Goldberg — has matured since then, meaning both that he’s found a way to take that humor based on sexual humiliation into the mainstream, and also to pull the mainstream a little closer to him. There’s no denying this is a good time for Rogen and cohort Judd Apatow, who directed Rogen in Knocked Up and serves as a producer on Superbad. Their brand of blue humor, funneled through characters dealing with the existential shame of being losers in high school, is consistently entertaining, and make no mistake: Superbad is one damn funny movie, filled with gross-out gags and verbal riffs and absurd plot twists and enough pure hilarity that I missed several lines of dialogue because everyone in the theater was simply laughing too hard for anyone to hear what was being said onscreen. But it’s telling that the film from director Greg Mottola — who also helmed a few episodes of “Arrested Development” and Apatow’s own “Undeclared” — had more downtime than Apatow’s comedies, in addition to being burdened by a running time of almost 2 hours, which makes for a draggy and often directionless second act. Superbad is hilarious, but also — at the risk of sounding like an obvious moron — more than a bit shallow. But I guess in that way it’s a lot like its teenage characters, and it’s hard to find too much fault in it when it tries so hard.
Superbad opens with a vintage-looking Columbia Pictures logo and colorful credits scored to 1970s funk, but the film is set in the present: The first onscreen communication between high school seniors and social outcasts Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) is via cell phone while Seth drives over to pick Evan up for school, their conversation casually turning to what kind of porn sites Seth plans to subscribe to when he’s away at college next year. The weird hodgepodge of time periods is perhaps the greatest defining characteristic of culture here in the first decade of the new millennium; while the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s each had their own (often terrible) signposts of individuality, the ’00s are all about throwing the past 30 years in a blender and pulling out whatever feels cool at the moment, which is how Seth can wear a Richard Pryor T-shirt and Evan can wear the kind of long-sleeved polos that one assumes kids wore to math camp two decades ago and no one says anything funny about it. As soon as the boys meet up and head off for school, talk turns to the subjects that tend to clog the brains of most 17-year-old guys: namely, erections, women, and all conversational and physical combinations thereof. Cera and Hill have fantastic chemistry together, bantering back and forth with the unrepressed ease of real friends who have a history of sticking by each other because no one else will, and they dive into the sex-obsessed shoptalk with reckless abandon. It’s part of Cera’s innate charm that he can remain nebbish and eager and somehow innocent even while trading horribly filthy insults with Hill, who embraces wholeheartedly the persona of the goofy frat boy whose simple lusts cover up a slightly more nuanced character.
The main plot starts to unfold when the boys are in Home Ec., where Jules (Emma Stone) tells Seth she’s having a party and she’d like it if he came, in one of the plot points that strains reality a bit but still gets things moving. Seth is in love with Jules, or at least in lust with her, and hopes that the party will provide a chance for him to get her drunk enough to lower her standards so that she’ll sleep with him, allowing for a summer of steady lovemaking after graduation, which is only a couple weeks off. Evan has high hopes for the party, too, since it’s where he plans to make a move on Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the cute girl who keeps flirting with him in math class — seriously, there’s something in the water these girls are drinking. In order to impress Jules, Seth tells her he can get liquor for the party, which means using the fake ID belonging to Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the kind of wiry, squeaky-voiced, oddly hip-hop inspired geek that’s at every high school in America. Fogell is clueless and a little belligerent, but ultimately well-meaning; he’s like a young Dwight Schrute in a Metallica T-shirt, and genuinely excited about the fact that his fake ID simply calls him “McLovin.”
So the boys set out to score alcohol, only to run into a piling series of misadventures as they try to make it to the party; in its rambling about town and fetishization of women, it almost feels like Mystery Date with better jokes. It’s a smart choice to have so much action happen before the party in question, creating more tension in a somewhat realistic setting that allows the characters to go down random paths instead of just getting the booze, getting hammered at someone’s house, and getting into trouble. But the middle third of the film bogs down in just a few too many punch lines that don’t quite work, and in plot twists that are merely random for their own sake: Fogell has a run-in with a pair of cops (Rogen and Bill Hader) and winds up riding around time with them for a while, drinking and shooting stuff, while Evan and Seth try to come up with back-up plans for getting money and/or alcohol and/or transportation to the party. Mottola keeps the film tightly paced in its first and third acts, balancing plot and humor and keeping things moving a steady clip; excising 15 minutes from the murky second act would have greatly improved the flow. As it is, it’s almost exhausting watching everything that happens to the central trio before they ever get to the party, and even then they’ve got a ways to go.
Cera and Hill are masters at their respective personas by now, and they have to be. They create two likable, relatable schlub-heroes, but the respective women in their lives are as interesting as cardboard. At least Stone is blessed with a natural spark she showed briefly on the short-lived “Drive” and gets to display in a few choice scenes here, especially her interactions with Hill at the party. But MacIsaac has been cast simply because she’s 23 and looks good in just a bra and has no qualms about portraying the kind of interchangeable female archetype — the nice-dirty girl as envisioned by a guy who just got his driver’s license — that is the stock in trade of teen comedies, even ones written by men as smart and talented as Rogen.
In addition to shoving the girls into short-shorts and not letting them say much — no woman is seen onscreen who isn’t talking to a man — the film takes a similarly hypocritical approach to morality, at once celebrating teen drinking (as all teens do) but drawing the line at actually having sex with someone who’s drunk, unless you’re also drunk, I think. To be honest, it’s among the film’s weaker moments when Mottola attempts to inject what could only be called righteousness into the lives of these characters, especially since they haven’t seemed to desire or earn it by their trials in everything that’s come before. Superbad is a little schizophrenic like that, bouncing back and forth between philosophies like its emotionally mercurial characters. Most teens don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, and that’s fine, and even good. But now that Rogen is an adult, it would be nice to see him focus his energies on the stories that he can tell better, like the one about the guy who sleeps with the girl and gets her pregnant, only to decide it’s time to step up and be responsible. Superbad is like seeing a friend from high school after you’ve entered that new stage in life: All you have to talk about is the past, and what it was like to be young and dumb. But it still makes you laugh the big laughs, and that, at least, counts for something.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.