It was bound to happen at some point. The younger the characters in Judd Apatow’s comedy universe, the greater the temptation would become for the guys to use it as an excuse to deliver every single dirty, filthy phrase they can think of. Now that the main characters are teenagers in Superbad, they have free rein to go for the cheapest route to a laugh and simply reduce teenage sexual angst to stunted maturity and inhibition.
I know my opinion is in the minority; the movie has been hailed almost unanimously by critics as finding a nice balance between raunchy humor and insightful drama. My personal theory is that these two elements almost always make a very uneasy cocktail, as was the case with Judd Apatow’s earlier Knocked Up, where I felt the women got the shorter end of the stick in an attempt to bring forth a gender relationship drama amidst the testosterone-laced vulgarity. With Apatow handing the writing duties to Seth Rogen (who was the lead in Knocked Up) and Evan Goldberg to present what I guess is supposed to be their puerile teenage experiences, this movie descends into near misogyny in its barrage of every sexual slang term it uses to describe the females around them.
Attempting to cross the far superior American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused with American Pie, the story follows the writers’ teenage counterparts, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), who are nervous during their last day of school before graduation and anxious because they have not lost their virginity yet. To do that, they set out to impress a few girls who will be at a graduation party by finding a way to bring alcohol. Seth is in hormonal overdrive over a partner he had in cooking class, Jules (Emma Stone), who is throwing the aforementioned party, while Evan seems a bit more genuinely attracted to another girl, Becca (Martha Maclsaac). Of course, being in a comedy that tries to be an identifiable human drama for teenagers, they will learn some life lessons through their raucous last night such as learning to calm down and be patient and realizing that the two best friends still have each other, though the other implication seems to be that teenagers can be as verbally putrid as they want before learning those lessons.
The movie, to be fair, does have brief flashes of depth when Hill and Cera are able to convincingly project the timidity that teenagers often have before they make the next big step into college and adulthood and the kind of male bonding that is mocked and dismissed by other classmates as homoerotic. Seth, who is curly, chubby and lacking in self-confidence, and Evan, who always looks insecure and anxious, have been close friends ever since grade school and they had vowed to go to college together, until the latter got into Dartmouth and the former did not. And the way the movie has the two of them declaring their immutable friendship by repeatedly saying “I love you” to each other is simultaneously liberating and funny.
There are a few other laughs that the film scores when it does not resort to outright bawdy jokes, particularly in Seth and Evan’s sidekick, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, in his first starring role), who reminded me a little bit of the geeky nerd Eugene from Grease. He offers to be Seth and Evan’s ticket to illegally purchasing alcohol, though they are a little shaky about the idea because all Fogell has is a fake ID that identifies him as a 25-year old Hawaiian organ donor named McLovin. The way that Fogell tries to act so cool and hip about it and Cera’s po-faced reaction to the one-word name saying, “One name? Who are you, Seal?” are both priceless.
But even the talents of Mintz-Plasse get squandered once the story puts him together with two cops, Officer Slater (Bill Hader) and Officer Michaels (Rogen again), who feel like characters out of bad SNL skits. They capture him during a stick-up gone wrong and, for some reason, drag him around to engage in a lot of corrupt behavior and spin the police car around and around without registering a single laugh. It all goes downhill to a revelation of the rationale for the behavior that's a shamelessly sappy attempt to hint that the crude teenage years were the best times for them, which seems to show that the filmmakers may have not grown up that much after all.
More to the point, what I do not understand is the incessant urge for director Greg Mottola and writers Rogen and Goldberg to base their humor entirely on raunchiness and shock value, which does not speak highly of their regard for women. I have said before that comedy based on the lowest common denominator of dirty phrases is really inducing uneasy laughs, no matter how funny. When Evan and particularly Seth measure a girl again and again by how “good” she would be in bed in the most profane terms available, I found myself with more uneasiness than laughs. That leaves the ending where the characters are supposed to have learned something in a night of outrageous behavior and stunningly foul-mouthed language utterly unconvincing.
Yes, the defenders of Superbad will say that I am being a prude and that teenage males talk in that crude way when they are genuinely curious about sexuality. But I somehow doubt that adolescent yearning alone would automatically turn them into extreme potty mouths like the screenwriters’ teenage alter-egos here, who are not even polite enough to just point out a woman as “hot” or stop at one four-letter word instead of 20 or 100. And when you assume the worst of a group of people, it is hard to bring out the best in them.
Bottom line: Medicore at best.