'Superbad' Raunch Has a Moral Lining
Directed by Greg Mottola, the film coasts on just enough narrative to give its central trio reasons to co-exist and get into trouble and, by way of moral instruction, calm down and treat each other and their objects of desire a little more humanely. In other words it's raunchy teen comedy with heart. So was the "American Pie" series, along with a million other movies. But the comic peaks of "Superbad" deal in specific characters rather than easily pegged stereotypes. Their most outlandish verbal riffs--none of which can be quoted in a Tribune Co. newspaper--give the edgiest stuff in "Knocked Up" a run for its money.
Seth, Evan and Fogell represent a tri-cornered composite of pretty much every American male whose hormones and insecurities barely allow them to survive high school. Seth is a sarcastic, verbally unstoppable kvetch who looks upon the challenge of losing his virginity as a desperate deadline assignment. Within him lurks the soul of Borscht Belt aggression, guided by the mouth of Buddy Hackett in Vegas. Evan is his deadpan foil, a sweeter, quieter personality. Fogell's the most prototypically nerdy as well as the sunniest character in the film, and perhaps in any film this year. From the moment he crashes a home economics class to greet his frenemies with a grin and a "Gangstaz! What's up, guys?" you know you're in for a fine time with this one, no matter how much humiliation he'll suffer on the road to fame.
I appreciate the film's relative disinterest in plot. Some cool girls are throwing a party, and the girl Seth's particularly hot for, played by Emma Stone, asks him to provide the drinks. Fogell's newly acquired fake ID paves the way--to a hellishly difficult night, including a run-in with a liquor store burglar; two rather tiresome comic-relief policemen played very broadly by Rogen and Bill Hader; and a climactic series of not-quite-hookups wherein the boys Learn A Few Things.
The "Superbad" boys are blank slates as well as sponges, trying to balance semi-secret social lives of beer and bongs and porn with their awkward public personas. Seth pounds his frustrations into powder by creative variations on words like "fellate," while Evan longs for the suspiciously hard-drinking Becca (Martha MacIsaac). Fogell turns into an icon of cool by the end of "Superbad." Like "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," this film sneaks a surprisingly upstanding message inside all the trash talk.
Director Mottola also did the sharp little indie "The Daytrippers," and he's clearly adept with young performers. By design Hill's Seth is a bit much; he's also the least interesting of the major characters. Cera's technique by contrast is practically invisible, and he doesn't expend an ounce of extra effort. Mintz-Plasse lands halfway between the two somewhere, very profitably. The film wouldn't work at all if we didn't believe in the friendship between Evan and Seth, and in the unexpected threat to that friendship posed by Fogell.
In this teen-boy universe, sex is everywhere and nowhere, it's oozing out of every pop culture pore and every other insane boast, yet the idea of figuring out how to talk to girls without turning into a yutz remains elusive. "Superbad" periodically dies whenever the policemen's antics take over and threaten to turn the film into another, lesser film altogether. But then it springs to life once again, especially verbal life. The way its young actors trade fours, representing the full spectrum of nasality as well as personality, it's like listening to fledgling jazz musicians on the make.
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