It's a nerd, he's in pain -- it's 'Superbad'
American movies generally want us to do more than like a character. They want us to root for him.
This necessitates charm, wit, humility, talent, a handsome face, something. A few movies take a character's likability for granted, as though his very circumstances are enough to make us root for him, as though the act of cheering on a character will make us love him. It should really be the other way around: Affection should inspire support.
"Superbad" is one of those movies that has this backward. It assumes that the desperate adolescent boy's quest for sex is so universal that we'd root for anybody to score, regardless of whether we love the kids in pursuit. The movie wants us to cheer on husky Seth (Jonah Hill) and noodly Evan (Michael Cera) in a quest to buy alcohol for a big party, where, God willing, two girls will take their virginity.
The ecstatically amused audience I saw it with didn't have any problem loving the movie or anticipating these two losing it. But I was never sufficiently seduced. I didn't like Seth and couldn't rouse myself to root for him. Needless to say, it was a lonely two hours.
Set in a virtually unparented American everyburb, "Superbad" has a degree more sophistication than "Revenge of the Nerds" and "American Pie," and less than the underrated "House Party." It's just as ribald as all of them. The movie spends a couple of days and one long night with Seth and Evan in the months before they leave for college. Their plan never to be apart has been upended since only Evan got into Dartmouth, and the movie's emotional subtext very much involves Seth's heartbreak over the possible loss of his best friend.
"Superbad" emerges from the increasingly successful happy comedy family whose central figure is Judd Apatow. He wrote and directed "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and produced this movie. The writers are Evan Goldberg and "Knocked Up" star Seth Rogen, childhood friends who've named the characters after themselves. Director Greg Mottola has overseen some excellent canceled TV series, including "Arrested Development" and Apatow's own "Undeclared."
"Superbad" has some of that Apatow feeling. The few smart observations could have come from an episode of one of his TV shows. But the movie is missing the gentle moral authority and most of the human warmth. (There is one affectionate moment between Seth and Evan in a sleeping bag that suggests a suburban "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and one disagreement between them evokes the wounded spats in Barry Levinson's "Diner.") "Superbad" also lacks a funny woman or at least some female perspective -- it would have been nice to hear what the girls see in these boys.
The filmmakers are much more interested in Seth's combustibility. He is explosively vulgar. The camera gets in close on his face as he screams frustrated obscenities at whomever. Humiliation (once, he's bled on; twice, he's hit by a car) only seems to make him worse. His unpopular status in school seems warranted: He's toxic and selfish.
"Superbad" belongs to that family of horny-misfit movies -- outcast boys want to hook up with cool girls but they've been too preoccupied with their obsessions to have learned how. But sex has been Seth's nerdy obsession, and he is pathological about every aspect of it. In explaining his contempt for the girl Evan likes, Seth tells a story, which the movie dramatizes, about how, years ago, she glimpsed one of his copious penis drawings. His phallophilia appears to have inspired his misogyny. That the movie knows the character is a lech doesn't make him any more fun.
Hill, who looks older than a high school senior, has had small parts of a similar vein in "Knocked Up" and "Evan Almighty." He was like a condiment in those movies. A little went a long, enjoyable way. As the star of his own film, he's a bowl of mustard. He has Albert Brooks's defensive sense of superiority (and a version of his wild curly hair), but he rarely gets to express that superiority as wit. It comes out in the form of breathless exclamatory expletives.
When I laughed at Hill it was when he was given something remotely printable to say. (He has a very funny line about manual sex, camouflage, and Vietnam.) But it's hard to build an entire movie around his kind of negativity. And as sweetly funny as Cera is in letting some of his lines just trail off unfinished (he was underrated as Jason Bateman's son on "Arrested Development"), he's not substantial enough a presence to wrest the movie away from Hill.
The filmmakers take breaks from these two to give us time with Seth and Evan's extremely geeky buddy Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who, after a mishap purchasing liquor with a fake ID, spends the movie riding along with a pair of reckless nincompoop cops, played by Rogen and Bill Hader. These scenes are tiresome and unpleasant (they look like they've been shot through beer goggles), but Mintz-Plasse has great comic style. He whines and wheezes his lines with a kind of broken musicality, and his face is often caught making an expression somewhere between shock and a sneeze.
As films about the young and the horny go, I preferred the smarter approach director Jeffrey Blitz takes in "Rocket Science," a comedy that also opens here today. "Superbad" feels confused by comparison. It's an R-rated film with the simple sensibility of a show that might play on the teen cable channel The N. But it's also thoroughly entrenched in a retrograde adolescence that keeps slipping outside teen comedy into the territory of the horror film. "American Pie," whose makers tried to give their inexperienced lads some carnal knowledge, did the same thing: It turned sex into something you'd expect to see in "The Exorcist."
"Superbad" comes up with mysterious menstrual blood, pre-coital puking, violently possessive 30-something cokeheads, and terrified reaction shots to it all. I wanted to find this as funny as audiences did. But it mostly made me understand the case for staying a virgin until you're 40.