Although it wants to be little more than an observant, large-hearted teen sex comedy with quotable graphic-dirty dialogue and a can-you-believe-that scene or two worth a rec-room rehashing, Superbad is a surprisingly bitter and limited movie with a broad, bristly mean streak. The movie is more notable for its uncritical indulgence of the seething, porn-infused misanthropy that is a natural byproduct of adolescent boys than it is for its handful of decent jokes.
Written by Knocked Up's Seth Rogen and his friend Evan Goldberg while both were still in high school, Superbad is about three seniors (Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who, right before the end of the school year, decide to attend a typical high school party in hopes of getting laid. So far, so good — like all formulas, this one works pretty well from time to time. Using basically the same story, Richard Linklater's much-cherished 1993 film Dazed and Confused added an atmosphere of free-floating amiability among nearly all its characters, and the original American Pie was raunchy and yet curiously sad in its recognition of the limits of teenage life.
Because the funniest humor in Superbad is verbal rather than physical, it's probably safe to say that Rogen and Goldberg may be the film's key creative forces. Not surprisingly, though, the hand of executive producer (and rueful grown-up) Judd Apatow hovers everywhere. Superbad extensively appropriates many key characteristics of Apatow's best film and TV work. Pop-culture T-shirts are used as social signifiers and class indicators. Several scenes reveal an acute memory for the awkwardness and sheer pain of male-female interactions in high school. And the too-brief classroom sequences nail the oft-ignored fact that, most of the time, teachers are like distant, buzzing flies to kids in the classroom.
The actors look and carry themselves like high-school kids, too: As he sputters and constantly re-corrects his speech, Cera's lean frame and round face make him look like a punctuation mark constantly wavering between exclamation point and a question. Rude and relentlessly, hatefully scatological, Hill resembles a wisecracking, overripe pear dusted with pubic hair trimmings. As Becka, Cera's love interest, Martha MacIsaac is an authentic creation in a too-small role. MacIsaac's drunken, sad-funny seduction scene with Cera is credible, specific, and more than a little menacing. She seems to have learned the art of seduction from Moulin Rouge, Stuff magazine, and Cosmopolitan sex quizzes, and Cera's horror at her advances is palpable.
What to make of a comedy whose lasting memories evoke terror or disgust? With the exception of Mintz-Plasses's wild night with two affable cops (Rogen and Bill Hader), the spirit of community and friendship that mark both Rogen and Apatow's other projects is almost entirely absent; it's tough to root for three boys when one of them is such a huge asshole. Superbad feels like a quickie, and while I am glad its makers got it out of their system, too much of it is as sour and unpleasant as a greasy belch.
Opens Friday, August 17th