I know it hasn’t escaped you how terrible comedies have gotten. How they recycle sight gags that had the League of Nations dropping their monocles and freshen them up by slopping around the kind of bodily fluids you get warned about in pamphlets. Or how the obligatory nods at warmth are shoehorned into the last reel just so chicks and anyone else whose interests run beyond NASCAR feel they’ve been invited to the party.
VIDEO: the trailer for Superbad
Well, you discerning æsthete, you, you’ll be glad to know that Superbad is made of slightly richer stuff. Sure, it’s got all the impolite rancor of its louder, dumber competition. Beyond that, though, it folds in qualities that the other guys don’t even realize they’re missing.
So it’s the last day of high school — isn’t it always? — for best friends Seth (played with flailing need by Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera, whose comedy of personal discomfort was the surprise highlight of Arrested Development). When Fogell, a barely tolerated third wheel, gets his hands on a fake ID, all three are entrusted with scoring booze for a popular girl’s party. Success here could have huge ramifications for the boys’ laps. All this leads to a picaresque across their anonymous exurb, where the three rub up against desperate and seedy adults that they’ve been cosseted from in their high-school cocoon.
Superbad’s successes can’t be counted by the lights of Great Cinema. Greg Mottola’s direction is tasteful but unglamorously matter-of-fact. There’s none of the lyricism or poignant futility you find in the equally amusing — but more acutely observed — Dazed and Confused. Rather, what Superbad gets right is two specific, seemingly mundane things.
First, the film doesn’t resort to any last-minute, heartfelt oratory. It doesn’t need to, because the whole story is shot through with sweetness thanks to the way Seth’s shouty feelings of neglect at Evan’s reserved hands seethe in the background. When you mix in the distinctly unhysterical social structure that screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg sketch for the film — free of John Hughes–inspired cages of dorkdom and hottitude — you get an evocative reminder of the abandon and lack of self-esteem of those hallowed years. With this warm but credible footing in place, Superbad achieves an uncommon lack of desperation in its constant barrage of hugely funny shenanigans.
The film’s other coup is the way that, relentlessly funny as it is, the laughs come less from “hard jokes” than from subtler in-character moments. Superbad is at its funniest when the characters are just being themselves, reacting in ways that are unexpected but inevitable — whether that means being uncomfortable with confrontation, overly confident, desperate for attention, or just obsessed with ’tang.
That, too, can be credited to the screenplay. But for both of these graces, you also have to thank Hill and Cera, who strike up a wonderful chemistry with each other and make use of very well-placed improvisation. And producer Judd Apatow — who’s long indulged a taste for improv — gets a pat on the head for giving the pair the freedom to bring out jokes and essential moments that could never have emerged from cappuccino-fueled laptop pecking.
These seem like small measures, but that’s all it takes to separate Superbad from the sickening horde. For being more like After Hours than American Pie 2, I’m happy to overlook Superbad's lack of ambition and call it the funniest and least depressing mainstream comedy in years.