After sex (‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’) and pregnancy (‘Knocked Up’), the new crowned kings of comedy – the broad, improvisatory ensemble of comics and filmmakers headed by Judd Apatow – turn to adolescence. ‘Superbad’ stars Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (the tubby one from ‘Knocked Up’) as two high school seniors preoccupied with alcohol, virginity, parties and the transition to college. Hardly an unprecedented set-up – ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘American Pie’ come most quickly to mind – but, like its stablemates, the picture is delivered with unusually high levels of both belly laughs and emotional affect. Gross-out is exploited – and how – but shaded with, and put to the service of, self-awareness, fellow-feeling and regret.
The film is produced by Apatow, co-written by ‘Knocked Up’ lead Seth Rogen and directed by Greg Mottola, whose TV work has included ‘Undeclared’ with Apatow and ‘Arrested Development’ with Cera. Working their pre-existing personae, Hill and Cera make a charmingly geeky odd couple, though third stooge Christopher Mintz-Plasse threatens to steal the movie as the über-nerd who falls in with a pair of puerile cops (including Rogen in a handlebar moustache) by dint of a preposterous fake ID identifying him simply as ‘McLovin’.
If these scenes set themselves a lower bar than the unassumingly deft character work of the main story, with its lively attention to adolescent anxieties, ‘Superbad’ at its best goes right through knockabout to land in deliciously obscene places – notably a staggering succession of doodles in which tumescent cocks take on various extraordinary guises. Crafted with such deliriously pain-staking care as to defy offence, they stand for a film, a group of films, defining the difference between vulgarity and crassness.