The bawdy jokes score big points, but it’s the rueful acknowledgement of adolescent embarrassment and humiliation that most distinguishes “Superbad,” another ultra-raunchy and commercial sex comedy from the Judd Apatow laugh factory. Co-written by and featuring “Knocked Up” star Seth Rogen, this very cheesy-looking account of three horndogs’ long night’s journey into hazy self-awareness is like “American Pie” with a conscience. Fixation on all manner of bodily functions and a plethora of outrageously out-there gags guarantee strong teen and date-night turnout, although demos will skew younger than for “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Pic will never die as a high school and frathouse keg-party favorite.
Although this picaresque little odyssey is decidedly set in the present day, the title, silhouetted opening credits and predominantly funk-soul soundtrack provide a distinctly ’70s feel, an impression furthered by a muddy, fuzzy visual style (perhaps partly attributable to nocturnal digital shooting) that harks back to the day when AIP and Crown Intl. were knocking out their own teensploitationers.
It’s easy to imagine the elemental script and storyline — cooked up by Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were teenagers — being filmed at the time they first started writing it: Two nerdy best friends trying to get laid on a party night before going their separate ways to college is a premise that can play anytime, anywhere. But the dialogue back then would never have been as bluntly crude as it is here; nor would the final credits have been festooned with creative drawings of phalluses, a nod to the childhood obsession of the Rogen stand-in here.
That boy, not at all coincidentally named Seth (younger Rogen clone Jonah Hill), is a motor-mouthed fatso born with an over-supply of vulgar bravado. Best friend Evan (named for co-writer Evan Goldberg and played by Michael Cera) is thinner, taller and more presentable, but equally keen to get a little experience in the saddle before heading off for college — Dartmouth, in his case, some unnamed lesser institution for Seth.
After some preliminaries designed to show how uncouth these guys are and how unlimited the film’s grossness will be, plot mechanics are set in motion when the coolest, most composed girl in school, Jules (Emma Stone), amazes Seth by inviting him to a party at her place that night and assigns him the task of supplying the booze. Anything is possible from this point on, as Seth and Evan, accompanied by skinny ultra-dweeb Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), have one excruciating scrape after another — getting involved in a liquor store robbery, consorting with some unsavory types at another party and ending up in the hands of two wayward cops (Rogen and Bill Hader) — before arriving at their destination.
As funny as much of this stuff is, scripters and director Greg Mottola (in a welcome return to features a full decade after his splendid debut with “The Daytrippers”) stretch too far the notion that the real fun lies in getting there. At close to two hours, “Superbad” is simply too long for the sort of picture it is; pic has some noticeable downtime, and it’s all in the middle, with too many goofy shenanigans involving the cops and assorted fringe characters that come and go. You really want the boys to get to the party already and see what they get cooking with the girls.
It’s worth the wait. Multiple gross-outs are served up, to be sure, but they’re not what you might expect, and the aftermath bears notably lifelike doses of regret and sober reflection on the boys’ silly, sometimes inexcusable behavior.
It’s a hallmark of Apatow’s films thus far, whatever his direct role, that stock situations and characters are endowed with extra dimensions of humanity, weakness and insecurity. “Superbad” may be more overtly comic than “Virgin” or “Knocked Up,” but its darkness and thoughtfulness are still notable for a genre so thoroughly dedicated to raucous surfaces and money moments.
At once just typical teenagers and clueless fools, Seth and Evan are ingratiating leads, and Hill and Cera fit so easily together you can believe they’ve known each other for years; whether deliberately or not, Seth comes off as genuinely obnoxious at times and not just amusingly assertive, which adds to the realism. Stealing the film, however, is Mintz-Plasse, an unknown high schooler who calls to mind a really twerpy teenage Dustin Hoffman; the guy’s totally off the wall. As the main girls in the mix, Stone and Martha MacIsaac are accessibly human and nothing like the snotty “whatever” bimbos so often seen in such fare.
Tech qualities are so grubby, one is convinced it must have been deliberate. At least at screening caught, print looked like it had been stuck in some vault since 1978, and sound mix was atrocious, with levels of ambient sound varying enormously from scene to scene but often not even existing, placing the characters’ dialogue in a virtual audio vacuum.