Sight & Sound, November 2007
Recent US comedy has been dominated by the ‘Frat Pack’, presided over by Will Ferrell. His 2004 vehicle Anchorman The Legend of Ron Burgundy in turn spawned a new gang led by actor-writers Steve Carell and Seth Rogen, and writer-director Judd Apatow, all of whom collaborated on The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and the current Knocked Up. This generation – for whom Vanity Fair will surely find a hip new tag just as soon as it dispatches Annie Leibovitz to photograph them for a fold-out cover – has an air of geeky self-deprecation that makes their films less showbizzy than those of the Frat Pack, and arguably funnier.
Superbad, co-written by Rogen and produced by Apatow, is a raucous party movie best enjoyed with a crowd. Although Rogen appears as a feckless police officer, the picture is dominated by three plucky young actors (Michael Céra, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who play high-school graduates Evan, Seth and Fogell, gearing up for a last party before college. Seth and Evan will no longer see one another when the latter departs for prestigious Dartmouth while the former attends a state college; Seth’s resentment simmers away throughout the film, though for now he has his sights set on sex. If he provides the booze for a party being held by Jules, the object of his affection, then he reckons he’ll get to sleep with her. This is where the drippy Fogell comes in: having secured a fake ID under the ill-fitting pseudonym McLovin, he is the key to Seth’s plan.
The movie treads identical ground to American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), but what distinguishes it is a post-Porky’s sensibility that simultaneously satirises and celebrates pre-PC smuttiness. Rogen and his co-writer Evan Goldberg wrote for the US series Da Ali G Show, and their semi-autobiographical Superbad script shares a lopsided perspective with Sacha Baron Cohen’s work. Just as last year’s Borat movie exploited for laughs the kind of xenophobic prejudices that we have largely abandoned or repressed, so Superbad draws its humour from the inexperienced heroes’ chauvinistic assessments of sex. Seth tells Evan that women “pride themselves on their dick-taking abilities”, and likens a woman’s nipples to “babies’ toes”. Adults are hardly more sophisticated. Officer Michaels, played by Rogen, admits that police work is nothing like the forensics-heavy procedure CSI had led him to expect. “When I first joined the force,” he laments, “I assumed there’d be semen on everything.”
Honest goodwill, fond observational detail and Greg Mottola’s exuberant direction make the picture nigh on irresistible, but there are some missteps. Like the similarly overlong The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Superbad is padded with longueurs that would have played better as DVD extras. The film never really recovers from a mean-spirited scene in which Seth dances with a woman who leaves menstrual blood on his trousers; it’s the only point at which the film-makers seem to subscribe to Evan and Seth’s view of women as alien and frightening, rather than mocking it.
And while it seems churlish to question one of the most pleasurable aspects in Superbad, you have to ask where the film’s 1970s bent fits in with the lives of modern Californian adolescents. Evan and Seth’s reference points are haphazard: they wear T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Richard Pryor or Bruce Lee, and freely drop the Beatles and Orson Welles into conversation, yet don’t seem interested in much more than computer games and internet porn. There is 1970s funk on the soundtrack, wonderfully groovy opening credits and a title which borrows that decade’s slang, but Superbad is a period piece in spirit only. It’s as though the script was updated at the last moment, but word never quite got around.