An early highlight of Superbad, an extended montage of a child's drawings of penises, pretty much tells you everything about the heart and soul of the film. A geekier Y tu mama tambien, it's a movie that correctly depicts two teenage boys' desparate quest to get laid as a sublimated expression of their profound love for one another. While the look and soundtrack of Superbad are meant to evoke raunchy teen sex comedies of the 70s and 80s, it's written with a wit and insight that few of its predecessors match. This is a movie where a bomb-riding weiner isn't just funny - it has purpose.
Co-screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began writing Superbad when they were teens, and I'm sure many aspiring filmmakers wrote a script along these lines with their friends when they were kids (I know I did). The protagonists, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), are clearly autobiographical, and the film sweetly hinges on their mutual affection. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Seth and Evan's misguided attempts to procure liquor in the hopes of impressing the objects of their unrequited affection before they graduate. It's a well-worn scenario made fresh by the screenplay's emotional honesty - Seth and Evan are headed to different colleges in the fall, and their horniness is complicated by the unspoken fear that actual relationships will shatter their idyllic routine of getting drunk on stolen beer and watching Vagtastic.com. It's while discussing porn early on that Seth describes the sight of vagina not being penetrated by a penis as "not for me," and Superbad mines many laughs from its protagonists' fear of that unknown quantity and retreat into the comfort zone of dick jokes, all the while nudging them into the realm of adulthood. Director Evan Mottola finds the perfect tone for the film, filthy but never leering, and aids his young stars in delivering surprisingly nuanced performances - Hill adds an effective layer of insecurity to the horny fat guy archetype, while Cera, at 19 already a master of deadpan, plays Evan as a nice guy at war with his own libido.
Underscoring the themes is the film's subplot, so hilarious that it nearly upstages the rest of the story, involving Evan and Seth's even nerdier acquaintance Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who carries a fake ID bearing the already-infamous pseudonym "McLovin." Almost busted for attempting to buy booze, Fogell ends up riding with two hard-drinking, Yoda-quoting cops (Rogen and Bill Hader) as they tackle drunks, destroy public property and try to educate the young man in the ways of women, all in the name of making cops seem cool. The cops essentially a cautionary tale for the protagonists should they fail to grow up, which gives them some of the film's most wonderfully absurd moments ("I call this the upwards spiral!"). And Mintz-Plasse is a real discovery, totally natural as he grows to embody the McLovin persona - he has the ability to make a throwaway line like "I've got a boner" completely hysterical. Best of all, it's the rare kind of film where one can laugh at boner jokes without hating oneself - lowbrow in a very knowing way, Superbad is hilariously dumb in a way that only very smart people can achieve. When Hill compares his sexual track record to the filmography of Orson Welles, I can't help but applaud not only the smart-alecky reference but the fact that the filmmakers are rewarding their smartest audience members at a time when most comedies aim squarely at the lowest common denominator.
The film ends on an interesting note, with the protagonists left to reevaluate their perception of women, to perhaps grow a little (this would resonate deeper if the film told us anything about its female characters, but still). The Judd Apatow canon seems largely aimed at speaking to overgrown adolescents, gently letting them that growing up isn't such a scary prospect. If, philosophically, I prefer Lindsey Weir getting on a VW bus and leaving town, that probably says more about me than it does the film, and we'll see how I feel in ten years. Still, my heart warms at the thought of 17-year-old boys sneaking into Superbad in the hopes of seeing boobies and perhaps learning a thing or two in the process. At the very least, I learned that, since McLovin is already taken as an alias, Muhammad is probably the next best thing.