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Superbad: Barely Legal
Reviewed by David Levinson
AFTER floundering through arrested development in this year’s Knocked Up, Seth Rogen has handed the baton over to a new wave of dropout with Superbad – a high school comedy all about (duh) getting laid. Co-written by Rogen (along with Evan Goldberg), the movie tempers its sharp guy-girl dynamics with liberal fixes of crudity, in a way that doesn’t really differ from the “new sincerity” of Judd Apatow (who produced). But where as Apatow’s manchild odysseys are so obsessively rooted in the now (Spider-Man 3, anyone?), Superbad takes aim in a bonghazy past: Closing the gap between the single-day rigour of Linklater, and the fluffy liberalism of American Pie, it arrives at a view of the teenage libido that’s always amusing, but too contrived to really nail the zeitgest.
Nevertheless, things start off promising enough, with Rogen and Goldberg bending high school taxonomy for the sake of their horny alteregos: Not quite innie or outie, 17-year olds Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) may skirt extinction with their dedication to online porn (having spent last Saturday night huddled around a laptop in Evan’s basement, soaking in episodes of Vagtastic Voyage) but they’re also quick-witted and conducive, with Seth having already hit his “sexual highpoint” at 15, and Evan (still a virgin) attracting attention from girl-next-desk Becca (Martha MacIsaac).
Joining their pussy-lite patrol, albeit in a more limited capacity, is Foggell (played by newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Like a twisted omen dooming their hunt for social advancement, Foggell combines Seth and Evan’s more salient traits – i.e. innate geekery, and overcompensating sex-drive – into one giant Sherminator throwback. Given the cartoonish lampooning (nasally whine, geek-Fonz shtick) his presence is initially estranging, because it breaks the spell cast by the auto-camaraderie of the other two. But despite teething problems that never quite subsist, he manages to prove valuable when, in a last ditch attempt to get laid, Seth offers to provide alcohol for a class party that night: As far as Seth’s concerned, the only way into host Jules’ pants is if she’s too drunk to realise, and the key to unlocking that fate is Foggell’s newly pressed fake ID. Meanwhile, opting for a similar course of logic, Evan offers to accomodate Becca, in the hope that a quart of vodka will be enough to finally break through the paper-delicay of their corridor run-ins.
So it is, like Oz-bound freaks and geeks, the trio set off in search of solace’s cup... which they find, ten minutes later, at a neighbourhood bottle store. But, of course, that would all be too easy, and so, in the interests of dramatic pull, the movie splinters them right at critical point – when an unarmed offender storms the counter and knocks Foggell out, just as he’s managed to pass off as his 25-year old Hawaiian alias, McLovin. Once a police car pulls up for investigation, Seth and Evan naturally figure Foggell’s been busted, and so flee with a guy who’s just run over Seth in the parking lot, having been promised alcohol in exchange for not turning him in.
Forced apart for most of the film’s remainder, Seth and Evan accompany their assailant to a frat party, while Foggell learns the ropes of policework with fun-loving officers, Slater (Apatow regular, Bill Hader) and Michaels (Rogen himself). Given the dynamic at play, i.e. fauxsure teens suddenly pulled into the fold of adulthood and authority, Superbad is a close riff on Apatow’s universe, which pits overgrown dropouts against the measures of love and parenthood. But for what it’s worth, there’s a slightly more menacing quality to the transition here – especially during the party sequence, in which the telltale sign of menstrual blood on Seth’s pant leg catalyses an all-out punching war, while meanwhile, off in another room, Seth is offered coke (yet to infiltrate Apatow’s stoner-friendly regime).
In classifying the outside world as something so cutthroat – where alcohol takes on the elusive currency of oil, and women are hedged like savannah prey –, the movie drives an inevitable spike between teen and adult spheres, and there’s a palpable sense of relief when Seth and Evan finally cross back over the divide. Yet rather than graduate from their iron-tongued sex talk into affirmative action once home, the climax at Jule’s party is pivoted on a kind of regression: Faced with the spectacle of a drunken, lustful Becca, Evan curls up into foetus position and cries surrender. Whether Seth, on the other hand, would’ve gone through with it is a non-question, because he’s forced to grapple with the mind-bending logic that Jules a) does not drink, and b) pending she were to get with him, would rather do it when they were both sober. In each case, the stroke of pathos is latecoming, but also tactical, because it switches the gears from supercrude geek-fantasy to a more deliberate male scrutiny, with just enough enough time to be crowned the laurels of its generation.
But for all the goodwill of Rogen and Goldberg’s change of heart, the move reads as totally dishonest – mainly because of how happy the two seemed to soak in the hormonal bedlam prior to that: From the ultra-scripted dialogue – careening between R-rated posturing (typical exchange = “I am truly jealous you got to suck on those tits when you were a baby,” rebutted with “Yeah, well, at least you got to suck on your dad’s dick”) and wise-beyond-their-years pop-culture drop (dig Evan’s Citizen Kane reference) – right down to the Muppet Kids endearment of Seth’s blonde aff and stoner goodwill (you assume the same rule applies to the Evan-Evan axis, though honestly the kid seems doomed to forever play George Michael). In other words, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Seth and Evan, and the translation, aside from a comic dose of self-effacement, comes off relatively free of hitches (in fact, it’s Rogen’s own cop who puts it best when he tells Foggell that, by hanging out with him, all he really wanted was to feel like a kid again). In comparison, for all the rabid desire of say Larry Clark or Gus van Sant to become one with their milieu, the impossibility of that yearning transmutes into a potent source of sexual tension, as characters stand like angel-faced civilians in the minefield of the directorial gaze. So, while Superbad’s account of teenage desire may initially come off as more legit than the latter’s jailbait-reveries, without the benefit of distance, what you ultimately get is two hours of self-engorged high-fiving.
» Greg Mottola | USA | 2007 | Featuring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Seth Rogen, Bill Hader. IN THEATRES SEPT 13.