Having found myself unable to join in the unstinting praise heaped on anything touched by Judd Apatow—I sat stone-faced throughout The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and laughed sporadically during last year’s Knocked Up (not believing its supposed serious side for a second)—I approached this Apatow-produced film with grave misgivings and gloomy foreboding. The film’s trailer looked pretty ghastly for anyone past the age where hearing swear words produces Beavis-and-Butthead Pavlovian chortling.
Truth to tell, Superbad bore out many of my worst fears. Much of the movie is puerile. Even on the basis of comedy grounded in overboard raunchiness, parts of Superbad sometimes seem determined to lower the bar for lowbrow. And there are definite signs that the PR folks ain’t just whistling the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust when they tell us that the screenplay was originally written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were high-school kids (roughly the age of the main characters, who bear their names). That, however, is both the awful truth and the truth that ultimately raises Superbad above its raunchfest quality.
A large part of my problem with the Apatow formula lies in its peculiar glorification of the arrested emotional development of the American male, which in Apatow’s worldview seems to afflict every man worth noting. The overriding theme of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up is the late-in-the-day shedding of adolescence at something like gunpoint. Yes, there is something sad and wistful about letting go of those years—when the ones letting go are in the 18- to 23-year-old range. When the characters are pushing 40, it’s closer to pathetic. Superbad makes the formula work precisely because its lead characters are at the age where this letting go is just right. As a result, the film finally achieves a pretty intense emotional resonance—in a way that’s almost a less guilt-tinged variation on the ending of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001).
I’d be very surprised if this aspect was really addressed in the original high-school version of the screenplay, because it seems unlikely that the guys had any clue of the depth of the end-of-an-era moment then happening at the time. That sort of thing takes some perspective—something the film addresses in broader comic terms with its 20-something cops, Michaels (Seth Rogen) and Slater (Saturday Night Live‘s Bill Hader). Still, the point when adolescence ends is clearly and carefully built up from the onset of the film. We know from the beginning of the impending separation of long-standing best friends Seth (Jonah Hill, Knocked Up) and Evan (Michael Cera, TV’s Arrested Development): Evan has been accepted at Dartmouth, while Seth is slated for a less prestigious bout of higher education. Their inevitable parting hangs over the entire film, and that, far more than their “need” to get laid before high school ends, feeds the sense of desperation that fuels their actions.
By the time the film gets to its—sexlessly romantic, but not guiltless—“love scene” between the two, it’s hard not to like them. When it reaches its final shots—with the realization that this is the moment of real parting, after which nothing will ever be the same—Superbad attains a level of emotional resonance that will be immediately felt by any guy who’s ever been there, which probably means just about any guy. The film also scores points for its final depictions of the two girls the boys had their sights on.
However, all this is cumulative and only a part of the film. The overall intent of the film lies in its position as a raunchy comedy, and it’s only partly successful in this regard. The entire movie is predicated on the desperate attempt to procure alcohol for a party—bringing the booze being the price our geeky heroes have to pay to find themselves included—that represents a last chance at having sex before graduation. Some of this works. Some of it doesn’t.
The entire subplot involving Evan and Seth’s even geekier friend Fogell (newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse) generally works. Fogell is in charge of buying the alcohol (with a fake ID that claims he’s a 25-year-old Hawaiian named McLovin) and finds himself embroiled in a robbery—and many digressions with the film’s comedic cop duo. Yes, it feels a lot like Danny Leiner’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), but there are certainly worse things to evoke than that guilty pleasure. Plus, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a real find, and he makes it all better than it probably has any right to be. On the other hand, a side trip by Evan and Seth to a creepy party isn’t simply unfunny, it becomes downright distasteful.
In the end, it’s the film’s generous heart and its depiction of the end of the era of adolescence that wins out, making Superbad more of a joy than a chore—a flawed joy, but a joy nonetheless. That said, please pay attention to the reasons for the film’s R rating and don’t be unpleasantly surprised, because they’re not kidding. Rated R for pervasive crude and sexual content, strong language, drinking, some drug use and a fantasy/comic violent image—all involving teens.