NetFlix Review #4: Superbad

Movies about adolescence are extremely easy to do, but terribly hard to do well. First of all, barring the super-young crowd, everybody’s had an adolescence, and they all go through similar things, but in entirely different ways, so whenever you make a movie that tries to get your audience to relate with your story by saying “Hey, remember adolescence?” you’re running into problems. I remember MY adolescence in Gainesville, Florida in the mid-to-late 90s. YOUR adolescence, however, is outside of my world of experience, so if you’re going to talk about how great it was to rock out to Rush in the early 80s you’ve lost me for a number of reasons. Secondly, you’re necessarily working through some sort of massive distortion. Either you are (a) writing the movie from an adults perspective looking back on those events, OR (b) you write the movie FROM that place of turmoil and disruption, a la the movie Thirteen. Usually approach (a) leads to some sort of hazy, wistful idea of childhood at best, or mere pandering at worst, and (b) usually leads to something melodramatic, dissonant and juvenile.

Superbad, when working at its absolute best, transcends these problems through the intriguing fact that its co-creators, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, started writing the movie when they were 13 and continued working on it off and on through adolescence and into adulthood. This way, at times, we get the immediacy, goofiness and raw sensitivity of two boys about to enter adulthood, but we also get some perspective and hindsight from an older, more mature worldview. This is best seen in the way the movie smartly downplays the whole “dudes trying to get lucky” storyline and puts the focus on two childhood friends facing splitting up for college and not knowing what to do without each other. The movie’s great strength isn’t so much that it takes this “bros before hos" approach, but that it lets us watch the characters sort out this very real set of priorities in a way that felt, at least for this viewer, very real and truthful. There is a great moment, I wish I could recall the actual words, where Jonah Hill's Seth yells at Michael Cera's Evan that he's wasted so much of his time on him instead of becoming cool or getting girls or doing any other number of awesome things. But what both characters realize later, although it's never so much stated, is that they wouldn't be who they are if they'd spent time with anybody else. I liked how the movie didn't follow the typical road towards having these characters be total outcasts or part of a set clique within a school full of cliques. I have never known anyone who has had a high school experience like that. Seth and Evan might not be the most popular kids in school, but they're not really outcasts either. People know who they are, they get invited to parties, maybe not to every one, but to some. The fact they haven't been out partying that much isn't that they're unpopular as that they're usually off doing other things by themselves, and having a good time doing it.

It's moments like the one where that last point is illustrated, when Evan hyperbolizes his previous weekend's adventures to his love interest while the audience sees what actually happened, that show the sleight yet perceptive ways in which the script and director Greg Mottola undermine the conventions of the genre. These nerdy loners aren't really that nerdy, or lonely. The joke of the scene is two-fold, first in that Evan is making grandiose claims against the mundane silliness of his actual weekend, but there's also the joke that, quite frankly, that weekend looks like a lot of fun. Evan's got nothing to be ashamed of, but he feels like he does because he, just like Seth in the later confrontation scene between the two, has bought into the strange cultural belief that high school is The Best, Wildest, Most Awesome Time of Your Life, and if you weren't living it up in some big, awesome way, you were doing it wrong. The film, of course, has its main characters living it up through scenes of wacky misadventures, but then uses those adventures to underline how good their normal lives already are.

Another way in which the film is somewhat subversive in regards to its genre is in its portrayal of Evan as "the good guy." The movie takes this archetype to task, showing that the "good guy" frequently isn't so much good as he is scared, and his deference to women comes not out of an appreciation, but an anxiety. Listen to how Evan justifies not asking out the girl he fancies because he "respects her too much." In one of the film's most biting, hilarious and uncomfortable moments, at the party of the film's climax Becca, the object of Evan's affections, is fall-down drunk. She asks Evan to drink with her, which falls right in line with Evan's plan of getting her drunk to have sex with her, and Evan's toast before downing shots with an already-intoxicated young girl is, with ironic earnestness, "to the respecting women!" Evan later sees how his worldview might need some readjustment, but only after he fully confronts his desires and recognizes that the women he so respects have those same desires as well.

Of course, the movie isn't all some deconstructionist analysis of the teen sex comedy, it's also just plain funny throughout. The b-plot with Christopher Mintz-Plasse's great McLovin character taking the town with two cops, played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, is an unending joy to watch. And although there is a certain amount of taking the air out of the genre tropes, there is also more than a little bit of playing along with those tropes as well, perhaps none moreso than the massive nerdy wish-fulfilment of Jonah Hill's slovenly, crass Seth ending up with Emma Stone's gorgeous, put together Jules. But in the end we're fine with it because we have, in many ways, come to care about these two main characters, not just because they're young, like we were once, but because they are so earnest, confused and real.

When I saw this film in the theaters it was at a special screening where both producer Judd Apatow and writer Seth Rogen were in attendance, as they were in town to start doing publicity for Knocked Up. Afterwards they did a Q+A, and it was a hilarious treat. The screening was at a 42nd Street theater, and the best moment of the night was when a man stood up who looked was a type you see often at these screenings, an urban black guy, probably early 30s. When he stood up he didn't have a question to ask, he just exuberantly thanked Judd Apatow for the movies he'd been making. He was there with his girlfriend, or I believe possibly fiancee, and he was saying that they'd been to every one of his films and couldn't wait for Knocked Up. The guy probably didn't see much on screen during the preceding two hours of modern young, white suburbanites as far as the actual trappings of his adolescence went, but he felt something, as had most of the other people in the audience, who cheered the man's comment. It's strange to think how many of these adolescent coming-of-age stories come out every year, and how few of them are ever any good. They're like horror movies, I suppose. Easy and cheap to make, with a guaranteed audience and built in, paint-by-numbers tropes, but extremely hard to find the actual emotional center of. As far as Superbad goes, it's not a brilliant filmI think they got some things right, and for that I take my place beside the man from the screening, and thank them.