The Movie Review: 'Superbad'

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"I'm sorry," the boy tells the girl whose posterior he's just whipped with some surgical tubing. "Your butt was calling to me." This assertion of anatomical enthusiasm was the second line voiced by Seth Rogen's character on "Freaks and Geeks," the critically acclaimed but short-lived NBC dramedy produced by Judd Apatow in 1999-2000. Over the subsequent eight years, Rogen and Apatow have collaborated frequently, first on television--following "Freaks and Geeks," there was the also acclaimed, also cancelled Fox show "Undeclared"--and subsequently on the big screen, where their interest in intimate body parts and what can be done with them has only grown more pronounced. In a supporting role in Apatow's 2005 The 40 Year Old Virgin, and again this year as his lead in Knocked Up, Rogen has, in Apatow's words, always pushed him to be more "outrageously dirty."

This will come as no surprise to anyone braving the Apatow-produced, Rogen-penned teen sex comedy Superbad, one of the most remarkably--and, at its best, hilariously--filthy examples of the genre ever produced. The story is so simple it's almost primal: Two clumsy high-school seniors, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) want to get laid. To accomplish this goal, they seek to acquire alcohol for a party being thrown by girls they like. The purpose is twofold: By bringing booze to the party, they will establish themselves as sexually worthy; by getting the girls copiously drunk, they will render themselves sexually irresistible.

The weak link in this otherwise flawless chain of logic comes in the form of their geeky friend--that is to say, more geeky than they are, which is saying a lot--Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has recently acquired a fake ID and is therefore crucial to their plans. The fact that Fogell chose to describe himself on his new ID as a 25-year-old Hawaiian organ-donor named "McLovin" is only the first hint of the difficulties that will lie ahead. Fogell is caught in the midst of a liquor-store robbery and subsequently befriended by the police officers at the scene, who teach him the finer points of alcohol consumption, picking up chicks, and gunplay. Meanwhile, Seth and Evan (so named after Rogen and his co-writer, Evan Goldberg) make an unscheduled detour to a shindig hosted by a seedy thug and his ostentatiously menstruating girlfriend, at which Evan is forced to perform the Guess Who's "These Eyes" before a group of hostile cokeheads. All three boys, of course, ultimately make it to the party for their intended, though ultimately fraught, sexual assignations.

If this plot sounds a tad halfhearted, that's because it is. During the central part of the film, the quest for booze, there are some good gags--notably, a disastrous cell-phone call between Evan and his would-be girlfriend--but plenty that land flat as well. This middle portion isn't bad, but it's not particularly memorable either: We've seen comparable bits in the American Pie movies, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Road Trip, and any number of other cheerfully adolescent diversions.

Where Superbad really sings--again, in the filthiest key imaginable--is in the moments when nothing much is happening at all. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie consist almost exclusively of raunchy repartee between Seth and Evan--in the car, on the football field, during Home Ec class. Discussing what porn site Seth should subscribe to, they weigh competing values: quantity, variety, degree of explicitness, how obvious the charge will be when it shows up on a credit card bill. ("What about 'Perfect 10'?" suggests Evan. "That could be anything. That could be a bowling site.") Later, Seth's confession of his childhood passion for drawing penises is among the lewdest set pieces ever committed to celluloid, a dirty joke that continues to build on itself long after achieving comedic critical mass.

There's an obscene genius to these scenes, but also an almost infantile innocence. When Seth and Evan are perusing a skin mag at a local convenience store, one of them even remarks approvingly that a model's nipples look like "little baby toes." These are boys who know nothing about girls and not much more about themselves, whose overdeveloped awareness of sex is a thin mask over their terror of it. In typical Apatow fashion, they are male life partners grappling with the imminent separation that adult heterosexuality will entail (though for a change doing it during actual, not extended, adolescence). Toward the end of the movie, the two boys, snugly and drunkenly ensconced in adjacent sleeping bags, repeatedly declare to one another, "I love you, man." ("I want to shout it from the rooftops!" adds Evan.) The scene is funny for all the usual reasons, but still more so because their boozy proclamations are so self-evidently true. The next morning finds them once again in lewd banter mode, as Seth tries on too-tight pants at the mall with Evan. The resulting discussion of male genital topography ("It looks like a division sign," offers Evan) is surely the most humorous since Ben Stiller zipped up prematurely in There's Something About Mary. But then, as the credits prepare to roll, the girls arrive and the boys split off with them, sinister adulthood again encroaching.

The movie is ably directed by Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) and features likable supporting performances by Rogen and Bill Hader as the oversolicitous cops, and Emma Stone and Martha MacIsaac as the pretty-but-approachable love interests. Jonah Hill, who played one of Rogen's stoner buddies in Knocked Up, is good as Seth, the loud-mouthed fat-guy character who will be familiar to anyone who's seen an American comedy in the last 30 years. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse is equally humorous (though almost certain to be overrated) as the twiggy spaz Fogell/McLovin, a slightly less prehensile variation on your typical D.J. Qualls role.

But the film really belongs to Michael Cera, who as Evan captures teenage sexual abashment as indelibly as he did in the role of George Michael on the late, never sufficiently lamented "Arrested Development." Cera, whose smooth, slightly rounded face brings to mind an early Jim Henson creation, is so adept at conveying the innocent desperation of male adolescence, so low-key and genuine (especially compared to Jason Biggs and other hammy purveyors of the nice-guy-who-still-wants-to-get-laid shtick) that he can at times be almost painful to watch. He also, at 19, has some of the best comic timing of anyone working in film today, a precocious sense of the awkward pauses and misread cues in which social panic resides. One might have to go all the way back to Bob Newhart to find a comedian so keenly attuned to the humor that lurks in the spaces between the jokes.

Little wonder then, that so many of Superbad's best moments are relatively quiet ones. Like funny people in general--and, one assumes, Rogen, Goldberg, Apatow et al. in particular--Seth and Evan are at their best when just shooting the shit, when their comic imaginations are not limited by the demands of physical possibility, however distended. There was a similar formula to The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, in which many of the most hysterical scenes took place outside the central narrative and consisted merely of grown men sitting around acting like idiots. Likewise, in Superbad, the boys ultimately learn something about sex, and friendship, and respecting women. But the movie's real lesson is this: There is nothing as dirty--and, in the right circumstances, as hilarious--as the mind of a 17-year-old boy.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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