Superbad (Sony) is as lurching, awkward, and dirty-minded as the three horny man-boys at its center—but not, in the end, quite as funny or endearing. In the tradition of the great high-school party movies of the past quarter-century— American Graffiti, Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused—it follows its heroes through one embarrassing day's journey into an even more excruciating night. The next morning, they wake up sadder, wiser, and marginally more sexually experienced.
It's too bad that the often very funny script, written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, takes a setup that could have been simplicity itself and piles on so many outlandish twists and grossout set pieces that the relationship at the movie's center—the co-dependent friendship between shy, brainy Evan (Michael Cera) and tubby, sex-crazed Seth (Jonah Hill)—is nearly obscured. Watching Superbad brought out the prude in me—not because of the drinking or the sex or the unbelievably profane dialogue, but because of what can only be described as the movie's moral code.
To put it simply, for nine-tenths of the film, Hill's Seth treats other people—especially his ostensible best buds—like utter crap. After Seth and Evan get invited, against all odds, to a cool girl's party, they persuade Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a pencil-necked geek so socially inept that he makes them look like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, to buy them a hundred bucks worth of booze with his highly dubious fake ID. Just as Fogell is on the verge of success, his lights get punched out in a liquor-store holdup—and when the cops arrive to investigate, Seth convinces Evan to ditch their pal and round up the alcohol some other way.
As it turns out, Fogell—or "McLovin," the alias he assumes thanks to that fake ID—has a far better night than his friends do. He's taken joyriding by the world's most immature cops (played by Rogen and Bill Hader), while Evan and Seth get stranded at a scary adult party and menaced by an unsavory thug (Kevin Corrigan). Still, I was never able to forgive Hill's character for that initial betrayal. Isn't it part of the outcast code that you stand by your friends in time of need? Seth is meant to be a lovable nut, and he's given many of the movie's funniest lines, but all too often—especially when he browbeats Evan for getting into a better college than he did—he just comes off as a jackass.
Many mishaps and one too many car accidents later, the boys finally meet up at the right party, where they clumsily attempt to court—OK, nail—Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and Jules (Emma Stone). I wish the boys had spent a little less screen time on their way to Jules' party and more at it, because what happens once they get there is both darker and sweeter than anything that's come before. The moment when Evan, alone in a bathroom, glugs from a bottle of retsina to get up the courage to approach Becca is both disgusting and uproarious. And the hideously uncomfortable scene that follows, in which the plastered Becca hurls herself at him and then hurls on him, is like no other sex scene I've seen in a teen movie—even as we watch her make a total fool of herself, the movie somehow leaves her dignity intact.
Critics are making noise about Christopher Mintz-Plasse, an 18-year-old non-actor who was cast after a nationwide search. And while he's perfect as the so-lame-he's-cool Fogell/McLovin, it's Michael Cera (heretofore best known as Jason Bateman's son on Arrested Development) whose comic timing quietly steals the show. While Jonah Hill mugs, babbles, and curses a blue streak, Cera gets laughs from the tiniest bits of physical business: His knock-kneed run is a joke in itself, and a moment when he's scared by the vibration of his own cell phone is inexplicably hilarious.
Though it's directed by Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers), Superbad is clearly riding on the coattails of its producer, the coolest geek in town, Judd Apatow, who finally managed to get the 10-year-old project greenlighted after the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The screenplay was begun when Rogen and Goldberg were still in high school themselves, and that immaturity shows both in the movie's manic energy and in its lack of an overall moral vision. However promising the gifts of Apatow protégés like Rogen and Goldberg, they need to grow into being great screenwriters, and it's going to take more than one night and a bottle of retsina.