Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dazed and amused

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

You couldn't get through the '80s without tripping over a John Hughes comedy. Although Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club demonstrated a healthy appreciation for adolescent awkwardness and self-doubt, it was a 35-year-old guy who penned the stories. Whatever their virtues, Hughes' films felt schematic and inauthentic, never capturing the hormonal roller coaster of angst, anger and bravado that fuels the teen experience. The American Pie flicks fared no better. More Porky's than Pretty in Pink, they understood the innate horniness and humiliation of teens, but little else. And without the camp cracks, apple pie humping, and MILF jokes, the films' high schoolers turned out to be pretty damn bland.

Leave it to the young to show the elders how to do it. Inspired by his mentor, Hollywood's comedic flavor-of-the-moment Judd Apatow, 25-year-old Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and his writing partner Evan Goldberg take an otherwise played-out genre and turn it into something uproarious, insightful and genuine.

More than just a canvas for unabashed vulgarity and filthy repartee, Superbad takes the deep pain and embarrassment of young men marginalized by their peers and liberates them through outrageous comedy. Its two leads — shy Evan (Michael Cera) and motormouth Seth (Jonah Hill) — are geeky high school seniors who cling to their friendship while desperately longing to define their masculinity. Which means, of course, scoring with chicks. When their super-nerd pal Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) secures a fake ID, Seth sees an opportunity to shed their outsider status, and promises the girl he's digging that he'll supply the booze for her party. Of course, nothing's as easy as it seems. Not only has Fogell chosen McLovin (just one name) as his faux identity, a series of increasingly humiliating mishaps ensue.

What's surprising is that Superbad's paper-thin plotline works in its favor. Rogen and Goldberg invest their movie with sharply observed moments and real affection for Seth, Evan and even Fogell. The movie's raunchy and often embarrassing jokes score big laughs, but never at the expense of its characters. This difficult-to-achieve laugh-sympathy combination is illustrated best when Seth hilariously recounts his childhood phallic obsession.

Much like how Richard Linklater masterfully captured the brashness and vulnerability of '70s teens in Dazed and Confused, Superbad revels in that odd friction that sexual lust and social dread produce in young males. There's a rueful acceptance that modern notions of manliness are undernourished by pop culture, producing cartoonish expectations about male-female relationships.

Most importantly, Superbad is piss-your-pants funny. Rogen and Goldberg are shameless in their attempts to unearth rude humor, filling their script with foul-mouthed wit, explosively funny stunts and nonstop indignities. Maybe it's the rashness of youth, but the two writers try anything for a laugh, even if it means missing the target. And amid the gross-out gags there's something unabashedly Jewish about their comedy — a blend of private mortification, sexual obsession and stylish profanity — that recalls Albert Brooks and Woody Allen.

Talented director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) mixes the groovy with the geeky to create a retro visual style that gives the film an unexpected punch. He demonstrates the rare ability to not only land a joke but also maintain a snappy pace. There are flat moments — particularly when Evan and Seth find themselves trapped at a strangely menacing house party — and the movie runs about 15 minutes too long. But Mottola deftly juggles the action.

The entire cast is engaging, but twentysomethings Cera and Hill are a well-honed comedy duo —Seth's hyper-frantic uncontrollable id matches perfectly Evan's introverted superego. Their friendship has a naturalness that's hard to feign; they have the kind of intimate chemistry Hollywood romantic-comedies struggle regularly to replicate.

Viewing the success of Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and, inevitably, Superbad, it's hard to decide whether Judd Apatow and his posse of protégés appeal to the cynic or sap in us. Though their aggressively crude humor and subversive wit suggest the former, their great sympathy (but never sentimentality) for misfits and outsiders indicate the latter. Ultimately, we're all flawed and these very funny comedies acknowledge that, saying life is really just one humiliating experience after another.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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