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There is probably nothing better in movies than having a low expectation about a film be completely flipped by the time it’s over. Okay, maybe a lot of things are better, like a new Scorsese film, that moment when the trailers are finally over and the lights go down, or Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. But you get the idea. Thinking something is going to be (super) bad only to have it be super good is like finding a wad of money in the pockets of a pair of pants you haven’t worn in months on the same night you are supposed to go halvsies on a pizza and found nothing but old receipts and movie stubs in your wallet. Nice.
If there is a genre in movies that has been worn down to the nub, it has to be teen sex romps, a specific set of films that have changed little over the decades, with ‘raunchy’ being the tent-pole descriptor in framing stories and plots. Mostly, it’s addle-brained, testosterone-filled, common sense-deficient boys lusting for hot girls, outrageous parties and general mayhem, and admittedly, there have been some really good ones, movies that have defined entire era’s of film and even spawned talented actors with successful careers. Most however, are like impulse items at the grocery store checkout. They look tempting, kinda make you feel good for a bit (if not a little guilty), and are completely forgettable. With Superbad, all the external packaging is there to fit nicely on the rack next to the others in that checkout aisle, but something happens while watching that ever-so-subtly shifts everything and turns this raunchy comedy into a heartfelt drama. Sort of.
THE STORY: Directed by Greg Mottola from a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the story follows Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), a pair of misfit seniors deeply worried about the really important issues of their generation, such as global warming, international terrorism, financial and housing crisis … and if you believe any of that then perhaps we should talk about some swamp land I’m looking to unload. What they are really thinking about is their lack of sex and poor social standing. But mostly lack of sex. Really, just sex.
Desperate to get laid and lose their virginity before they get to college, they are surprised to get invited to a popular kid’s party, and make a promise to bring the alcohol, based on the assumption that their less-than-reliable friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) will come through on his fake ID. The story then follows the boy’s misadventures as they work to get and deliver the booze while having run-ins with irresponsible cops, druggies, and assorted oddballs that all seem actively trying to stop them from getting to the girls.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: This is going to sound strange about a movie where one boy ogles his best friend’s mother’s cleavage and pointedly makes overt sexual gestures with cooking utensils in class toward a girl’s backside, but it’s the sentimentality of it all that makes Superbad so good. Yes, these are characters crafted from decades of horny teen archetypes but what the filmmakers do with them is load them up with honesty.
This gives the boys a powerful sense of vulnerability and layers their antics in a kind of empathetic cloud where we identify with the urges and needs of not just the sexual exploration the age encumbers us with but all the social dynamics that cut many of us off at the feet. Hoping just to be noticed in a positive way, and not just by a girl, but by anyone, the deflective and reactionary antagonism of their encounters feel almost justified, even defensive in many ways.
Watch how well the film allows these two characters to grow, to shed so much of the expectations we pile on them as it progresses. It’s smart writing and cleverly done as it’s all mixed together in a by-the-numbers party movie that is like a recipe for how to make a raunchy teen sex romp. Believe it that this was intentional and wholly designed to mask the central message in distractions so you wouldn’t outright know you were actually watching a drama about friendship rather than a bawdy comedy.
A GREAT MOMENT: Let’s avoid the outstanding ending and that sensational escalator moment that for those who haven’t seen it yet will be the ‘ah-ha’ moment about what the movie is really trying to say, but rather a sweet moment involving Evan, who is so well portrayed by Cera, it just about demolished his career as it came to be the character he is expected to play.
Compared to Seth, he is entirely opposite though the two have similar motivations. More nuanced and introverted, he is the classic quirky indie nerd boy and it’s best played out in this nice little sequence with a girl named Becca (played with effortless charms by Martha MacIsaac). Evan is taken by the pretty girl, and once during class is drawn to her face but then uncontrollably down to her slightly open blouse where she catches him noticing her chest.
After class, she calls out to him and you think for just a moment that she is going to make him ‘fess up what he was doing, but instead, something else happens that shifts the scene into a whole kettle of unexpected warmth that captures so much about those awkward frazzled minutes when you’re talking with a person you’re desperately attracted too and are so wound up by it you don’t even catch that they are also way into you. So it is for Evan. It’s an achingly disarming moment that helps elevate the movie to places far above the genre.
THE TALLY: Superbad is loaded with outrageous behavior, don’t let this post convince you otherwise. However, it is because of that and how well it funnels it all down to an incredibly impactful closing that serves as testament to the filmmakers in reshaping what the genre can even mean. A young Emma Stone plays a quirky but popular girl that becomes the target for Seth, and earns big laughs and and lots of praise for her work, revealing why she is the much-celebrated star she is now. She’s always been fearless and puts that to great use here.
While slightly fantastical, the movie never drifts too far to the absurd, shrouding the movie as if it were a film entirely in flashback in the minds of older men looking back on events that have grown larger and more colorful with time. Filled with a great gags and memorable quotes, Superbad is an exception to the rule and stands out as a film well worth discovering … again. It’s what to watch.