I never thought I would see the day that 1980s-style teen sex comedies would return to theatres. Movies like Porky’s and Bachelor Party, or even Meatballs(you’ve come a long way, Bill Murray) exemplified Reagan-era excess, the sort of self-centered pleasure seeking that spawned yuppies, coke binges, and the economic recession. Not only were the characters in those movies hell-bent on having a mindless good time, but also the audiences. They were comedies for the monkey in all of us, that feces flinging fornicating inner primate. As the me-decade passed away, so did the me-comedies. Indulgent teen comedies today primarily take the form of the post-modern pastiche, such as the Scary Movie franchise or any of its bastard offspring, referencing so many other movies that they play like a sit-com “clips episode.”
It takes someone like Seth Rogen to bring back the 1980s teen sex comedy. Apatow’s recent films have proven him the fastest pop-culture slinger east of the Mississippi, and funny to boot. Putting that knowledge to use in Superbad, his first self-penned film (along with childhood friend and co-writer Evan Goldberg), Rogen pays tribute to the teen sex romp not through eyebrow arching, wink-wink references, but by building his own from scratch. If you were to take the standard formula that yielded, say, Weird Science, season liberally with Generation X pop-culture, add a dash of Scorsese’s After Hourstransplanted to suburbia, and garnish with Michael Cera you would have Superbad. It is an all-inclusive inventory of one of American cinema’s strangest genres: alcohol? Check. Sex? Check. Dick jokes? Check. Belligerent homeless man? Check (trust me, it’s a common paradigm). And don’t forget all of that madcap tomfoolery! The only thing missing is a stripper or a mud-wrestling match. Though there is a painfully awkward scene involving menstruation.
Normally this type of comedy only succeeds if you are already a fan. A perhaps not-so-shocking admission is that I am not, yet I still enjoyed Superbad. I’ve never liked 1980’s sex comedies. I didn’t even like American Pie. But Superbad is different. One difference is in the atmosphere of the films. In Porky’s, the excess and animalistic indulgence seems like a product of debauched nihilism. In Superbad it is the product of teenage stupidity and experimentation, which takes some of the shaming sting out of it. Another major difference is in the heart. Rogen seems to have learned a bit from working with Apatow, because hidden beneath the motley, hormonally charged exterior of Superbad is a real and in many ways sentimental story, and it works as a film both on its surface (jokes) and at its core (story)—a tack that Apotow has worked magic with twice already.
The MacGuffins that drive Superbad are oh so familiar: get alcohol, get laid. But it is really about friendship and growing up. The focal point of the movie is the relationship between Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera). As their names indicate, they are in fact based on Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Their friendship has reached that awkward point when one has matured, and the other has yet to catch up. Seth exemplifies adolescent obsessions, talking constantly about porn, sex, and … well, that’s mostly what he talks about. In the meantime, Evan has rapidly become a sensitive, caring young man, quietly rebuffing Seth’s sexist comments or consoling their nerdy friend Fogell.
Evan may sound more mature (and in many ways he is) but both have something to learn. Seth, of course, needs a reality check in regards to sex, but Evan has yet to learn the value and meaning of his friendship with Seth. All of this caring and learning is carefully secreted behind a veil of populist humor (quickly becoming a trademark trick of Rogen’s colleague Apatow). An example is when Fogle (or, by this point, McLovin) is drunkenly making out and he offers the complement, “well… I have a boner.” Some will laugh because they remember being so awkward and naïve about sex and their own bodies. Others will laugh because he said “boner.”
This illustrates how Rogen and Goldberg’s writing is just as adept at hitting you in the heart as kicking you in the groin, thanks in no small part to some very talented young actors, perhaps the most capable of all being Michael Cera. By now best known for his role as George-Michael Bluth on the ill-fated Arrested Development, Cera has already proven his comic chops further via his web-sitcom Clark and Michael. He’s in top form in Superbad, possessing a sort of graceless intelligence that comes in stutters and one-liners muttered between innocent grins. He provides the right mixture of naïveté, awkwardness, and subtle wit for the subject matter at hand.
In the end, Superbad is admirable, if only for its dual aims of creating the best teen sex comedy ever, and telling an honest story about coming of age, but it is not perfect. The movie is less polished than Knocked Up, or even The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it is dangerously overloaded with lowbrow jokes and non sequitur profanity that goes for the crotch level laughs (sure, this is about teenagers, but I’ve never known a kid who used the word “vagina” and permutations thereof so many times in a single day.) But while this element of Superbad gives the distinct impression of hedged bets, its heart is in the right place and somewhere beneath all of the pituitary excretions there is a rough but promising sense of compassion and sense of humor.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Cast: Michael Cena, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen
Distributed by: Sony Pictures