Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Superbad at 10: The Agony and Ecstasy of Growing Up

on August 17, 2017, 12:00am

Oh, christ. It’s already been 10 years since Superbad was released? To immediately date this piece, this author was two weeks away from his freshman year of college when Greg Mottola’s smash hit was unleashed on the public. Audiences eagerly looked forward to the latest feature from the creative hivemind responsible for The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but didn’t exactly anticipate that the film would enter almost instantly into the pantheon of the all-time great raunchy teen comedies. After a total box office haul of $169 million (nice) worldwide and a lengthy tenure as the most quoted movie in dorms across the nation, Superbad has ended up standing the test of time as one of those teen movies that people will undoubtedly show their kids for years to come, probably sooner than they should, while gritting their teeth through the parts that don’t age as well.

Every few years, a generation gets “their” graduation movie. For some, it was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or any of John Hughes’ iconic ‘80s hits. For others, it was Can’t Hardly Wait. (Sorry, those of you who graduated in the late ‘90s.) For the weird kids, it might’ve been Donnie Darko, and even a few months later into 2007, Juno hit home with many viewers in equally quotable but more pensive ways. Superbad distinguishes itself by capturing that listless sensation of the time when high schoolers already have three limbs out the door, waiting on the future even as its uncertainty begins to crush those of lesser mettle under its fist. At once, you’ve never been more excited or more thoroughly scared shitless. You’re an adult now, and at the time, it means that you can get trashed with relative impunity, even if it only means that you’ve transitioned from stealing your parents’ liquor to relying on your friends with piss-poor fake IDs. In reality, it means that the nebulous point at which you have to “figure it all out” is no longer four years of high school away. It’s now.

For best friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), that’s more than either can process, and so they don’t. As they slack through their waning days of school, they discuss which porn sites they’ll subscribe to (oh, the quaint internet of yore), gay-bash each other as only dumb young men do, get drunk in their parents’ basements, and aggressively avoid any real conversations about how they’re going to separate colleges in a few months’ time. Neither wants to consider what this could mean for their friendship going forward, so instead Seth drools over Evan’s mom, and Evan mocks Seth’s Belushi-esque blustering about his untapped sexual prowess, and both of them attempt to negotiate their long-standing crushes, who could disappear out of the realm of possible consummation before long. All of this strife arrives while they’re still dealing with pointless classes run by checked-out teachers and obnoxious classmates, and most of all their incorrigibly dorky third wheel, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

But when Fogell gets his fake, in the unflappable new guise of Hawaiian organ donor McLovin (“it was either that or Mohammed”), the trio embarks on an unplanned night of self-discovery in the unforgiving darkness of the adult world. A liquor store robbery sends Fogell into the orbit of Officers Slater (Bill Hader) and Michaels (Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the film with his longtime friend Evan Goldberg.) Meanwhile, Seth and Evan struggle to come to terms with their impending separation while being dragged through a seedy party full of coked-up twentysomethings and nursing their own unrequited desires. For Evan, Becca (Martha MacIsaac) is only as far away as his anxiety will prevent him from going; despite his compulsive inability to have a conversation with her, she’s as clearly interested as somebody can be. Seth, meanwhile, strains to impress Jules (future Oscar winner Emma Stone), the consummate “cool girl” and seemingly one of the few people in the whole school who treats him with respect. As Evan bluntly puts it: “She definitely hasn’t figured out how hot she is yet, because she still talks to you.”

Rogen and Goldberg started writing Superbad together while in high school themselves, and it shows in the small details. Seth’s blustering conversation with a Home Ec teacher perfectly mirrors the exasperation of a dwindling school year, and his degradation of Evan’s PE classmate (a young Dave Franco) hits perfectly on the casually vicious bullying that teenagers sort of just visit on each other without ever stopping to consider it at length. That’s to say nothing of the 186 “fucks” throughout the movie, atop its many other vulgar punchlines; it’s an absolutely crass iteration of the teen movie, but in this, it’s also possibly the most faithful representation of modern teenage life put to screen. In a decade where movies like Thirteen (a good film, but a melodramatic one just the same) painted teenagers as walking manifestations of alarmist PSAs for adults, Superbad cannily understands the dualities of being a teenager. You’re a filthy, half-formed version of yourself that wants to have sex pretty much constantly, and if you’re the kind of person (like the film’s central trio) who hasn’t found an outlet for it yet, the latent frustration eventually turns inward.

This constant thirst is vividly captured by Cera and Hill, who deliver a pair of star-making performances as one of the great modern onscreen comedy duos. For as much as Cera’s halted mannerisms have become a criticism (often undue) of the actor over time, Superbad uses them to immaculate effect. His deadpan delivery of his comebacks to Seth gives the film some of its biggest laughs (“well, at least you got to suck your dad’s dick”), and his climactic attempt to get drunk enough to not worry about sex features some of the best faux-trashed character delivery since Anthony Michael Hall in his heyday. (Hall’s geek performances in various Hughes movies is a visibly huge influence on Cera’s work here.) Meanwhile, Hill rips through one showstopping bit after the next; his famous soliloquy about his childhood dick drawings is as uproarious as many of his rapid non-sequiturs throughout. (“I flip my boner up into my waistband. It hides it and it feels awesome.”)

Far more could be said of Superbad’s top-to-bottom great performances, whether it’s MacIsaac playing wasted in ways that came to define cinematic drunk teens for a certain age group, Stone already demonstrating a command of the dry charisma that would become her calling card, or Mintz-Plasse as the sort of nerd whose nerddom is particularly egregious even by the standards of other nerds. But given the listlessly conversational structure, Goldberg and Rogen’s screenplay is the truest star. While the “Apatow factory” took mainstream studio comedies in a more hangout-minded direction over the years that followed, Superbad fuses the loose structure of so many of its followers with the quotability of some of the best comedies of years past. A case could certainly be made that it’s one of the last truly great quotable comedies in this regard, a movie that die-hard fans can (and frequently will) recant at length to other fans.

What sets the movie apart from so many other gleefully juvenile exercises in dirty talk, though, is how it’s as much a case study in several different kinds of insecure manhood as anything. Even Virgin, for all of its emotional authenticity, honors the immaturity of its leads as much as it criticizes it. Superbad arrived just two years after Wedding Crashers and four after Old School, a pair of bro-comedies that took the extra step of actively canonizing its idiot leads’ boorish behavior. (That said, at least Old School is clever enough to justify it for most of its runtime. There’s a case to be made for Crashers as perhaps the single worst-aged comedy of its era.) Where Fogell is at least a classic dweeb, all bluster and little ability to function in the real world, Seth and Evan are more familiar types to any formerly awkward high schooler, or worse, anyone who tried to date one.

Even as it observes the traditions of the one-night teen movie, Superbad plays with these tropes in ways that subvert them, and yes, sometimes uphold them. Evan is a brutally insecure young man, but he’s also a good person at his core, to the point where Seth’s constant suggestions that female inebriation is their only path to sex start to repel him. When his moment of possibility finally arrives, he has to practically be dragged into sex, reluctantly half-struggling against it even as he’s being undressed, out of moral concerns. For Seth, who’s initially the least likable of the trio by far, all of his own poor self-image comes dribbling out in his slurry confession to Jules near the end: “You wouldn’t get with me if you were sober.” In these choices, Superbad occasionally pushes the boundaries of audience identification; on its face, this is a movie about two young men attempting to get their love interests drunk enough to sleep with them. But it’s also a movie about how ignorant their ideals are, and the importance of outgrowing them.

The former shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as commonly as it sometimes is, particularly as it relates to real-life young idiots who (at least at the time of its release) tended to miss that Seth and Evan and Fogell are the movie’s biggest targets, even as they’re also its heroes. But Superbad is also a rebuke to the retrograde politics of so many other teen classics, as much as it periodically lapses into some of the same. To return to Sixteen Candles as an adult is to try and overlook the major plot point of Jake Ryan giving away his blacked-out girlfriend to a high school freshman for sex (and at that point, let’s be frank, rape) in exchange for information. Revenge of the Nerds cuts out that hand-wringing vagary and culminates in a triumphant climactic scene of sexual assault at a carnival.

In assuming the perspective of teenage morons for better and worse, Superbad occasionally verges on dealing in some of the same ugly material as its characters. While Rogen has taken ownership of the film’s borderline-glorified casual homophobia and sexism in recent years, and the film is smarter about tearing down these ideals than it’s sometimes credited for being, it’s still as tacky at points as its wannabe delinquents can get. A central gag about the horrors of period blood is the film’s most tired setpiece for the committed performances involved, and the gleeful rules-free hedonism of the police cannot help but read differently than it did a decade ago, despite Hader and Rogen’s affable presence. To return to the notion of subversion, though, Superbad also served as a crucial bridge between the alpha male-driven comedies of the early aughts and much of the sharper material that arrived in its wake. It laid quite a few harmful genre standards to rest, while allowing for the notion that even the worst teenagers can grow up and usually will. And that, as true as it ever was and ever will be, most teenage boys really do spend an excess of time talking in graphic detail about all the sex they’re not actually having and wish they were.

Its bold-for-the-time third act makes this plain. When the police officers raid the big house party around which the film is built, “rescuing” Fogell and sending the revelers home for the night, Seth drunkenly carries an even drunker Evan out of the party, loudly announcing his love for his best friend. In sleeping bags, their running off-the-cuff homophobia gives way to a genuine sort of love, even beyond the “bromance” half-posturing of the time. They care about each other, sincerely, and Superbad informed a generation of young men that mutual affection didn’t necessarily have to be followed with a “no homo,” even as it usually was in real life. It’s a movie about sexual desperation, but by its end it’s also one about platonic love between friends and the unsettling truth that not all friendships make it. For all of the Hughes influences, the one that Superbad best matches is in its final scene. As Seth and Evan go off with their possible future paramours, beginning their own lives, Mottola realizes that sad moment in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Matthew Broderick acknowledges that he and Cameron probably won’t stay in touch or remain friends, and he and Sloane might not last too much longer either. For Seth and Evan, they may or they may not, but it’s not for the film to say. That’s life.

The R-rated teen movie returned with force in the decade since Superbad, and many of the best owe one degree of debt or another to it. Yet what’s most heartening is that its biggest lesson seems to have been the four-letter optimism, over all of the debauchery. Hill would go on to star in the Jump Street movies, which would continue to subvert both high school clichés and male relationships in their own right. Fare like The Edge of Seventeen carried on its candid ear for the narcissism and the periodic venom of teens. Superbad is every bit as imperfect as its influences and its protagonists alike, but that imperfection only makes it all the more enduring. Two of its three leads never actually get laid, and the third one only does for a second (“oh my god, it’s in”), but that’s not really the point. The point is that Seth and Evan are soulmates and that one of the hardest parts of growing up is knowing that it might not stay that way forever. But for the moment, in the seclusion of Seth’s basement, all is as it should be.

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