One of Judd Apatow’s greatest strengths is his ability to mix the subversive with the sweet, deftly striking a balance between raunchy, gross-out humor and heartfelt emotion.
Apatow, best known for writing and directing comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” receives only a co-producing credit for “Superbad,” but his shadow looms large: Though screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began working on “Superbad” during their early teens, the result, more than a decade later, is a cheerfully vulgar but wistful farce that bears all the markings of the Apatow pedigree.
That’s no surprise, given Rogen’s history as the star of “Knocked Up” and co-writer of the Apatow-directed TV series “Undeclared.” Here, he stars, too, as an incompetent but (mostly) good-natured cop who seems more intent on reliving the drunken glory of his misspent youth than enforcing the law. As long as he and his partner (Bill Hader, of “Saturday Night Live”) are on patrol, no police cruiser or keg party is safe.
Joining him is a trio of teens celebrating their final days as high-school seniors: Seth (Jonah Hill), a husky, excitable loudmouth determined to lose his virginity; Evan (Michael Cera), a shy, mild-mannered brain; and Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a blithely oblivious nerd with a fake ID bearing the single name “McLovin.”
Hill, in his first starring role after supporting turns in “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” is perhaps the film’s biggest revelation. With his portly frame, coarse sensibilities and spectacularly bad timing, he makes Seth the quintessential outcast, entirely co-dependent on his few friends but convinced that he can still work his way into the cool crowd — or, at the very least, some lucky girl’s pants. He delivers every line with manic, wild-eyed conviction, striking the right tone of desperation as a kid with a single-minded desire to drown himself in sex and booze, though not necessarily in that order.
If Hill is responsible for ensuring the film’s R rating with monologues so profane and anatomically specific they would’ve made Steve Carell’s 40-year-old virgin blush, Cera is the film’s heart. Like George Michael, the awkward, unassuming teen he played on “Arrested Development,” Evan is essentially an innocent, lacking the predatory instinct to make good on his quest to get laid. Even when that quest seems primed to pay off after a night of extreme debauchery, his nobler instincts take over.
It is McLovin, though, who enjoys the fullest evening after getting picked up by Rogen’s rogue cops and escorted around town in pursuit of cheap thrills. Together, they get smashed, gang-tackle a vagrant, shoot up a police car and destroy the evidence. It’s all fairly tame, really, foolish slapstick that recalls the buffoonery of “Home Alone” more than the inspired silliness of, say, “Knocked Up,” but “Superbad” is more amusing for its playfully obscene dialogue than its broad physical comedy.
And yet, even in that department, it sometimes misses its mark. It’s raunchy enough, but it lacks some of the subtle wit and verbal sophistication that has always distinguished Apatow’s finest comedies. It is a tale familiar to anyone weaned on teen sex fantasieslike “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “American Pie,” and to those of a certain age, it may become just such a cult classic. To others, “Superbad” will seem a pleasant, if slight, diversion.
Starring Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Seth Rogen, Bill Hader
Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Directed by Greg Mottola
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes