Tuesday, August 14, 2007

MovieWatch: "Superbad"

Director: Greg Mottola
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69 (I'd actually have gone with something a point or two lower, but I'm happy to honor the low-brow sensibility of the film)
In a Nutshell: An absurd percentage of media reporting is just trendspotting and when the media catches hold of a cover-all catch phrase that it (we?) likes, it rides that sucker til the pony collapses and dies. I've never been as sick of a reductive phrase, for example, than I am of "Torture Porn," which has become critical shorthand for dozens of disparate movies that both do and don't deserve to fall under the heading.

Why, then, have I not read an adequate one or two or three word deconstruction for the output of the Judd Apatow Empire, for the slew of films and TV shows that Apatow has producer, written or directed in the past decade, dating back to "Freaks & Geeks" (or maybe "Cable Guy," if you're so-inclined). Is it something as simple as Outcast Porn? Or Underdog Porn? Or Geek Porn? Something reflecting the way that films like "40 Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and now "Superbad" allow viewers to get off on the celebration of outside-of-the-mainstream male heroes, to both laugh at the characters but simultaneously liberate them from stereotypes. However, while porn is participatory, the participation is essentially self-contained and profoundly limited. Apatow's films are about recognition, both from the actual freaks and the geeks in the audience, but maybe also from the people whose high school years were more socially fruitful. Maybe Nerdsploitation or Jewsploitation or Goofsploitation would be a better term? Perhaps that tie into the fact that while many blaxploitation films were, indeed, exploitative -- written, directed and produced by mainstream white men to take money from black audiences -- many of the best were generated within the African-American community itself. Even though Apatow has a fabulously hot and funny wife (Leslie Mann) there's no doubt that his youth mirrored that of his protagonists. Seth Rogen isn't playing at being the funny, husky, Jewish-Canadian. That's who he is. Other members of the Apatow Family Ensemble -- Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Jason Segel -- are striking for how truly comfortable they are both with the roles the play on-screen and, at least to some extent, embodying them in real life.

Anyway, that's just me thinking out loud. Any suggestions?

Follow through after the bump for my thoughts on "Superbad."

Click through...

I saw "Superbad" almost a year to the night I caught last summer's underrated "Accepted." I caught both films in early screenings at Comic-Con, which meant that both films were being screened for their core audiences. And both comedies were darned well-received. "Accepted" wasn't a smash hit or anything, but its $36 million gross far exceeded its budget.

Check the Zap2it Comic-Con blog for my initial reaction to the movie (some of which will be repeated below) and some of the funnier moments of the post-film Q&A.

Because I liked "Accepted" -- it's loose, rough and far funnier than it has any right to be, given its pedigree -- it isn't damning "Superbad" with faint praise to say that the new flick is far, far superior in every way. It's the story of three guys who would traditionally be depicted as losers -- Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse -- who attempt to acquire alcohol to secure their entrance to a key pre-graduation party and, hopefully, into the undies of a trio of previously unobtainable women -- played by Emma Stone, Martha MacIsaac and Aviva.

Even by "Porkys" standards, "Superbad" doesn't have much of a plot, but the script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg is magnificently digressive. The characters are on a Rabelaisian journey in which the specific events hardly matter. What matters are their conversations along the way -- the lewd, rawkus, inappropriate, occasionally brilliant conversations that feel distressingly believable and familiar. The movie is as raunchy and stupid as any 15-year-old could hope to see (assuming they buy tickets for a less R-rated movie and sneak in), but Rogen and Goldberg are stealth-smart and the film's love of language is always evident. Greg Mottola's direction is focused on making the movie look as jagged and naturalistic as possible, but mostly letting the comedy breath.

The thin narrative (and its over-long 114 minute running time) and aforementioned naturalistic visual style combine to keep "Superbad" from feeling like a "whole" movie at times, certainly when compared to the Apatow written-and-directed "Knocked Up" and "Virgin." While the best parts of those two films were still just the scenes in which the main characters sat around and shot the shit, you left with a sense that a full story had been told and that, occasionally, the resources of the cinema had been invoked. "Superbad" is mostly a string of those shit-shooting moments strung together toward a conclusion that isn't quite as satisfyingly heartwarming as it thinks it is. As such, it's very possible that "Superbad" is a funnier movie -- laugh-for-laugh -- "Knocked Up." It's certain to inspire repeated viewings and there's a good chance that its dialogue will be repeated and woven into the overall vernacular to an extent not seen since "Napoleon Dynamite" (an awful movie that totally could be called "Nerd Porn").

Although not quite as loaded with Apatow-friendly cameos as "Knocked Up," "Superbad" still features folks like Martin Starr and David Krumholtz in small roles, while Carla Gallo is the center of one of movie's most memorable scenes as a particularly aggressive dancing girl.

Now why, I ask you, isn't Sony using my pull quote "A rough-and-raunchy tribute to being geeky and white." Why?!?


  1. While I tend to have a soft spot for the Apatow Factory in light of my love for Freaks & Geeks and, to a lesser extent, Undeclared, I think he is really pushing the limits, not in terms of content but in terms or running time. A good friend of mine believes that no comedy should run over 90 minutes and while I believe there are exceptions (The 40-Year-Old Virgin managed to disprove the notion), both Knocked Up and Superbad go on for far too long. Both have lots of laughs and good performances, but they lose steam before the film runs out. As for a succinct description of Apatow's works, I'm not sure what to call it. What fascinates me is how he (usually successfully) manages to balance the profane, the profound and even a bit of prudishness. Vulgar comedies about staying a virgin until you are married, couples forming out of an unexpected pregnancy or not being able to admit your feelings for male friends. I thought it was interesting in Superbad how they tried to turn the female characters into the stereotypical male equivalents, with one eager to have a drunken fling when the male thinks it's wrong and the other not wanting to take advantage of the inebriated guy. Still, the film as a whole doesn't hold together. A phrase...hmmm...Virtuously Vulgar Comedies? That's the best I've got.

  2. Anonymous12:20 PM

    What I find truly interesting from a feminist perspective (or, hell, maybe just a female one)is that Apatow doesn't seem to depict, or even understand, normal female sexuality. His female characters are either walking, threatening depictions of the vagina dentata (his own wife!) or punished for acting on their desire (is there a worse punishment than getting pregnant by Seth Rogen?).

  3. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Jordan, LOL. Apropos of your remarks, you may be interested to see what I said about this issue after viewing the Superbad trailer a week or so ago and reading Dan's first impressions from Comic-Con.


    Dan, "Rabelaisian" eh? You *must* be away from Los Angeles. :)


  4. Anonymous1:49 PM

    Here's that shamelessly self-promoted link again:


  5. Anonymous5:18 PM

    Touché and agreed, ciw. What I found most amusing were the reviews of "Knocked Up" citing Apatow's deep understanding of the female condition. These reviews were all written by men.

  6. A spirited intellectual debate? On my blog?

    I'd best duck out of the way and not disturb it ("Rabelasian" reference aside)...

    The complication I'd throw in is that a number of people think that Catherine Keener's character in "Virgin" is both interesting and specifically human. I'm sure, Jordan, that *many* of the people saying that are men, but maybe not all?

    No, obviously Katherine Heigl's character in "Knocked Up" isn't a person so much as an idealized woman who has to be injected with Seth Rogen's semen to learn a very important lesson about... um... something or other. The virtue of Jewish Canadians? Probably something like that...


  7. I do think Keener, perhaps just by virtue of her talent, did make her character more layered than the ones in subsequent films. I do have to admit though that while some aspects such as the Rogen-Heigl romance can be viewed as a male fantasy, I find it equally disturbing to see the number of people dismissing it with "why would a babe like her sleep with a schlub like him?" as if non-handsome people of both genders don't ever hook up with people better looking than they are. Look at Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts, though it didn't last, or Cate Blanchett, who has stayed with her defiantly pudgy and normal husband as her career keeps rising.

  8. Anonymous11:11 AM

    i frankly don't remember "virgin" well enough to comment on keener's performance, except to say that because they cast a 30-something indie-film babe in the role, that prob. made for a more rounded character. she has the appearance of depth on screen.

    as for the rogen-heigl hook-up / romance: it's not so much rogen's looks (after all, he's witty -- smart, sexy, idealized chicks like that), it's more that ben stone seemed to have stopped maturing emotionally ca. 17 y.o. male: the stoner lifestyle, the utter lack of ambition (save for the semi-porn website), the equally man-boy dudes he lived with and called his closest friends. these are the characteristics that seemed insurmountable in their rel., not his looks. (plus, he's cute, in his own way.) the idea that this type-A woman with goals and her career on the rise would commit herself to turning this guy into the man/ baby-daddy of her dreams on the grounds of a one-night stand is pure fantasy. and laughable, but hey, "knocked up" is a comedy, so...

  9. Oh I agree on that part. I never doubted that they could hook up, but I didn't buy that they would remain a couple, baby or no baby.

  10. Anonymous4:09 PM

    edward, now i'm really confused about what your point is re: babe + schlub = true love forever. it doesn't matter though, 'cause it seems we're both in agreement that the premise of this film's narrative is ridiculous.

  11. My point was that too many of the people seem to dismiss the relationship on superficial grounds, i.e. beautiful woman wouldn't date less-than-beautiful man, but I completely agree that in terms of their characters, regardless of physical looks, I didn't buy them staying together, baby or no baby.

  12. Anonymous1:11 AM

    got it.



  13. Surprised to find so many people I'm fundamentally in agreement with regards to the uber-popular Knocked Up. More specifically, I too was annoyed at how Heigl's "character" essentially exists so we can watch Rogen's Ben become a better person, which amounts to reading some baby books and building a crib (all in montage form).

    Ed it's interesting you mention the superficial argument of "no cute girl would sleep with/date an 'ugly' guy" because I've become far more offended by the lazy defense conjured by the film's (mostly) male fan along the lines of "well I'm a chubby/nerdy/somehow aesthetically undesirable guy and I bagged me a cute wife/girlfriend so it happens."

    First of all, this is strictly a judgment call (what guy goes on record as saying his girl isn't cute?) but more importantly ignores how chronically, bordering on criminally, immature Ben is. Odds are these guys weren't spending their days getting high, working on their porno websites, or playing ping pong in their driveway with their buddies like they're at summer camp. People seem to have been so charmed by Rogen's droll, self-depreciating, clever pop culture quoting routine they overlook how much of a raging asshole he is for 90% of the film.

  14. Anonymous1:39 PM

    "how CHRONICally...immature Ben is." i think you've hit the nail squarely on the head, or the fired the joint squarely on the tip, as it were.

    it's interesting to hear non-mainstream viewpoints voiced from men on this male-oriented comedy.

    it's still a funny movie, though.

  15. Re: "Superbad. Watching this movie, I felt like Apatow & Co have gone to the well one too many times with this premise. It doesn't have to be "Steel Magnolias" or "Fried Green Tomatoes " or (God forbid) "The Hours," but I wish they would write a movie with some real female protagonists next time, some independently thinking entities with real thoughts and feelings and maybe even a clever quip now and then, instead of adding to what is becoming an increasingly ludicrous male nerd fantasy. I was (and in some ways still am) a male nerd too, but Jesus....

  16. Craig -

    It's my hunch that we're going to push up against the threshold of Apatow's influence with Drillbit Taylor (which doesn't even look vaguely funny) and Walk Hard (which looks like a one-joke SNL sketch pushed to 100 minutes).

    That being said, I'm still looking forward to Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- starring and written by Jason Segel and co-starring Veronica Mars -- and next summer's The Pineapple Express -- very strangely directed by David Gordon Green.

    So we'll see how many more times we get to go to the well...


  17. Here's the Missing Scene that I keep wishing I would see in an Apatow production. I want to see our Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill-type hero in the Hot Girl's bedroom, looking through the Hot Girl's scrapbook while she's in the bathroom prepping to "get it on," only to discover a series of photographs that indicate that said Hot Girl has had a history of unlikely Rogenesque/Hillian boyfriends. Would it work? Would it be funny? Who knows. But at the least it would be a quirk, a fetish, a character trait that would serve as a building block toward establishing an actual personality with unobscure motivations. Next time they go to the well, here's hoping.