'Superbad': Geeks Gone Wild

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

Already dubbed the "American Pie" of the MySpace generation, "Superbad" promises to be this summer's cure for the back-to-school blahs, simultaneously trafficking in the hoariest cliches of the teen sex comedy genre while slyly sending them up. Not surprisingly, this trick has been pulled off in a movie produced by Judd Apatow, who has proven to be exceptionally adroit at delivering outrageously raunchy comedy with a self-conscious wink.

Indeed, "Superbad" often plays like a prequel to Apatow's hit comedy "Knocked Up," in which Seth Rogen portrayed a dumpy pothead who ultimately gets the babe. In "Superbad" -- which Rogen co-wrote -- Jonah Hill plays a high school senior who resembles the future Rogen, a chubby, foul-mouthed porn addict (named Seth) who is determined to snag a girlfriend for the summer.

While Seth slobbers over a sharp hottie named Jules (Emma Stone) in home economics class, his best friend Evan (the reedy-voiced Michael Cera from "Arrested Development") quietly lusts for a shy girl named Becca (Martha MacIsaac) in math.

Following the night-in-a-life structure of such gold standards as "American Graffiti" and "Dazed and Confused," "Superbad" chronicles Seth and Evan's attempts to score liquor for a graduation party, the better to endrunken and finally bed the objects of their desires. (Rogen, who shows up in a cameo role, wrote "Superbad" with his friend Evan Goldberg when they were teenagers.)

"Superbad" is already surrounded by a nimbus of buzz that virtually guarantees it will be a big hit, not only in theaters but in its ancillary afterlife; with its slapstick rehearsal of ever-more-mortifying high school humiliations (the inopportune hormonal explosions; the halting, disastrous attempts at casual small talk; the endless opportunities for public rejection), it's one long wince-inducing contact buzz kill. And it's cinematic catnip to teenagers longing to witness the pratfalls of bigger losers than themselves.

Hill brings a certain bug-eyed, fat man's grace to the role of Seth, whose pranks and one-liners -- none of which can be repeated in a family newspaper -- all have a nasty edge. Cera's Evan is far gentler, and his humor lies more in his persona and delivery than in the shock value of what he says. (He has an encounter with Becca in the hall during which he calls her "missy" and "sister" that is all the more hilarious for being so inexplicably so.)

Not surprising in a movie about geeks trying to get it on, the geekiest character is the most indelible: Newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse steals the movie in his screen debut as a nerd di tutti nerds, a kid whose fake ID reads "McLovin." With his eyes squinted shut behind the standard-issue glasses, every line reading he delivers is an aria of quivering, adenoidal insecurity.

Greg Mottola, who made the terrific Manhattan picaresque "The Daytrippers," directs "Superbad" with his characteristically light touch, even if it's used in the service of filthy sight gags, endless profanity and an inordinate obsession with bodily fluids (the ante started with the hair gel gag in "There's Something About Mary" has now been upped to menstrual blood).

Surely in some Cinema Studies class this fall it will be argued that "Superbad" might be the most artistically and intellectually honest movie of Apatow's film career. With his classic television series "Freaks and Geeks," Apatow displayed an uncanny sympathy with teenage anxiety and aspiration. His movies "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," on the other hand, dealt with superannuated Beavises and Butt-heads stuck in a state of loutish arrested adolescence.

Those movies, though often uproariously funny, have had a pathetic, even hateful edge to them, and it felt as if Apatow was having his sexist cake and eating it, too, with a helping of preemptive self-loathing. In "Superbad," he's back to focusing on adolescents, so their stupidity about women at least has a chance of leading to wisdom; of all the films he's been involved in, it feels the most humane and unforced.

But let's be real: This is a movie that succeeds or fails in direct proportion to how well it can deliver a penis joke. As a raunch-and-retch vector, "Superbad" is as efficient as they come. What makes it transcend its generic shackles are the two final scenes, which reveal a staggering degree of candor and sophistication in acknowledging the homoeroticism that underlies so many teen sex comedies. With its subversive, and even touching, final twist, "Superbad" proves itself to be not just smutty and stupid, but tender and all too aware of the rue that can lie behind the smiles of a summer night.

Superbad (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive crude and sexual content, strong profanity, drinking, some drug use and graphic comic violence, all involving teens.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company