Most high-school comedies—even the really good ones—are written by people for whom puberty, homework and keggers are all distant and pleasantly nostalgic memories. I wasn’t a bit surprised, though, to discover that Superbad, this summer’s second sweet-natured raunchfest from the Judd Apatow stable, was originally conceived by a couple of kids who were even younger than their cusp-of-college onscreen counterparts. Seth Rogen (the lead actor in Apatow’s Knocked Up) and Evan Goldberg are in their mid-20s now, but they reportedly first began work on Superbad’s screenplay when they were still barely in their teens, and the completed film—centered upon a pair of fast friends named, with charming candor, Seth and Evan—captures the male adolescent mind-set with almost uncanny accuracy, for better and for worse. On the one hand, the film’s best gags emerge organically and spontaneously from the nonstop cavalcade of potential humiliation that teenage freaks and geeks face every day. But be advised that the verisimilitude extends to a 14-year-old boy’s unending fascination with his own genitalia, to the point where they could have simply called their opus Cock: The Movie.
To be fair, it’s really Seth (Jonah Hill) who’s struggling with the serious dick issues, having done time in counseling back in grade school due to a severe penis-doodling compulsion. (The montage of Seth’s handiwork that accompanies this anecdote merits a very special Oscar for the artist(s) in question.) While that’s now under control, his starving libido decidedly is not, so it’s a major coup when he and Evan (Arrested Development’s Michael Cera), scant days before graduation, score an invitation to a honest-to-goodness party—the kind with cute girls. Except that Seth, desperate to impress, has volunteered to supply the booze, and neither he nor Evan has ever bothered to secure a fake ID. Enter Fogell (typecast newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the school überdork, who’s just secured a driver’s license that proclaims him to be of drinking age. And from Hawaii. And blessed with the entirely credible unimoniker “McLovin.” Conning the liquor-store clerk, however, turns out to be the very least of their problems today.
Cera, who’s sprouted and gone lanky since Arrested Development was canceled, and Hill, a sputtering butterball, make an inspired comic team—a profane, horny Abbott and Costello, except with “Who’s on First?” transformed into “How Do We Get to Third?” And Greg Mottola, directing his first feature since 1996’s equally goofy The Daytrippers, allows their syncopated badinage to set the movie’s rhythm. While there are a few deliberately outrageous set pieces—most notably Seth’s mortifying bump-and-grind with an older woman devoid of both underwear and, shall we say, feminine protection—Superbad has a shambling, discursive sensibility that closely approximates the semistructured world of the fumbling adolescent. And the comedy isn’t cheap, even when it’s crass: Mottola and his actors dawdle early on, establishing each character’s unique, ultraspecific temperament, so that the big laughs are predicated on our expectation or understanding of how manic Seth or bemused Evan would respond to a given wacky situation. Even McLovin, whose adenoidal chutzpah flirts with nerd cliché, ultimately comes across as a genuine (if sorry) kid rather than a hasty composite.
Had Superbad stuck firmly to this bracing amalgam of truth and exaggeration, it might have been a modern classic. About a third of the way into the movie, however, McLovin, entrusted with the task of procuring the liquor, crosses paths with a couple of uniformed beat cops, played by Rogen and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader, who seem to have wandered in from another, much more overtly zany picture. Frat guys with badges and guns, far more likely to break any given law than to enforce it, Officers Slater and Michaels proceed to shanghai half the movie, dragging McLovin around on farcical adventures that bear no tonal resemblance to what’s happening with Seth and Evan halfway across town. Even when this material is funny, which is a fair amount of the time, it’s funny in such a radically different way that it disrupts the film’s rhythm, making it seem like just another hodgepodge of situational gags rather than the detailed, incisive, character-based piece it clearly aspires to be. Worse, I could no longer rationalize the nonstop penis humor as tiresome but accurate; it now smacked of opportunism. For all its invention and hilarity, Superbad is ultimately a movie with two dicks too many.
Jonah Hill, Michael Cera,
Directed by Greg Mottola