Hollywood has a new king of comedy: since the success of Knocked Up, Judd Apatow has risen from producer of never-watched TV shows (destined now to be called “cult classics”) to someone who can sign the cheques for the studio. And he’s not short of projects, with six films in pipeline, all written by him or his friends. The first to ride the wave into cinemas is Superbad, written by Knocked Up‘s star Seth Rogen and associate Evan Goldberg.
Seth (Jonah Hill) is a selfish, foul-mouthed and thoroughly unlikeable brat who likes to doodle genitalia and thinks that, having spent a cookery lesson partnered up with sultry Jules, he’s now one step away from losing his virginity. Agreeing to supply her party with alcohol, he ropes his friends Evan (Michael Cera, of Arrested Development fame) and Fogell (an excellent first performance from Chris Mintz-Plasse) into an epic quest to buy booze despite looking like the cast of Rugrats. “The whole funness rests on us,” Seth complains, repeatedly, despite the fact that by the time they arrive, several adventures later, the party-goers are all happily smashed already.
So far, so American Pie, though what makes Superbad stand out is its near-artistic pretensions: the action takes place over a single night; the cast is small; the comedy is mostly character based with sparing slapstick. It’s shot in grimy light on cheap-looking film giving an ordinary, semi-documentary feel, more C4’s Skins than Pie‘s cheesy gloss. The girls are just as dorky and awkward as the boys. There are no lesbians, dolly-blondes or errant fluids. Instead, there’s a constant barrage of conversational crudity that borders on the monotonous.
Thankfully, the film has two saving graces: the first being Michael Cera’s sweet but awkward Evan: a hero worth rooting for, innocent, witty, but undeniably funny-looking. The second is Fogell, a wiry, arrogant dork whose fake ID (on which his name is simply “McLovin”) provides the plot and all the best laughs. Hired from the Improv Olympics, Mintz-Plasse gets the right mix of nervous wreck and down-right weird, and his array of whoops, giggles and flinches make for a spot-on portrayal of that bizarre kid you were at secondary school with.
The film-makers are keen to have it known that the script for Superbad was written when Seth and Evan were 13, and although it’s clear it’s been updated (the internet, mobile phones) it all still smacks of pubescent male fantasy, more unpleasantly so than American Pie because of its grungy on-the-ground feel. Cops, periods and body-parts feature heavily: characters are mad, bad and have exams. Everyone, from shelf-stackers to police officers, just wants to get drunk. In the end, the boys do get the girls, despite Seth’s irksome whinging and Fogell being, well, Fogell.
Watching Superbad is at times like touching something unpleasant. Most of us are happy to put our teenage mistakes behind us rather than up on a multiplex screen. But the characters are well-sketched and some moments are genuinely funny. The same crowd that loved American Pie will probably love Superbad for much the same reasons – its unflinching portrayal of grubby teenage lust. And if you do like Superbad, you won’t have to wait long for the next one either…