Saturday, June 19, 2010

[Film Review] Superbad

The DVD menus of Superbad are possibly the most honest that I've seen. They don't show stills or short clips from the movie itself, like many such menus do, or feature snippets of dialogue, or simply sit there inert. Instead, they present a parade of childish drawings of penises in various styles, situations and outfits, while the silhouette of Michael Cera dances to an amazingly amateurish funk track. It's not so much that this is entertaining, but it does serve as a perfect non-spoilery encapsulation of the movie you're about to watch. Well, the music on the menus is misleading, since the music in the film itself is great.

After the title sequence, which is more dancing silhouettes, Superbad launches headfirst into its mission: getting deep inside the sex-obsessed heads of high school boys. There's no sense of dramatic build in the first act. Instead we are dumped with total immediacy into a conversation about the best porn site to subscribe to in college, followed by a discussion about how much better the world would be if erections were celebrated rather than scorned. This kind of all-at-once immersion is difficult to pull off, but Jonah Hill and Michael Cera make it work largely by making it feel like the world that they inhabit has always been there, rather than being something made up for a movie.

The film does an excellent job of capturing and conveying the uneasy mix of arrogance and emotional fragility that comprises the life of a high school boy. It also manages to actually out-raunch actual high school boys, a feat not to be taken lightly. Most of the humor, though, comes from deliberately misused vocabulary and awkward phraseology. For a teen sex comedy, there are remarkably few attempts at physical comedy, and those aren't given nearly as much screen time as the hilarious dialogue. There's also not as much sitcom tension, characters finding themselves in situations that are inevitably going to result in their public humiliation, as in many comedies. Most of the setups that seem as though they're going to end in embarrassment for our protagonists instead take an unexpected turn and conclude with them being inadvertently, accidentally awesome. Rather than indulging in the thick sludge of schadenfreude that fuels many comedies, it's obvious that these characters are well-loved in spite of their goofs.

There's some nicely messy worldbuilding here. In most films, but especially in comedies, the setting often comes across as weirdly hermetic, a sealed environment in which every character tic is guaranteed to have some explanation or knock-on effect later in the film. This is understandable, as film narratives are necessarily tightly plotted and details of character and setting are too precious to be thrown away, but Superbad's courage in rejecting that set of assumptions creates the sense that these characters really are moving through a larger world than just what we see on screen. There are conflicts which we never get an to see the full resolution of, characters who are clearly intent on following their own paths but who only drift through the periphery of the plot onscreen, and mysteries for which we never get an explanation. This profusion of loose ends would be refreshing in any movie, but it's especially welcome here, as it resonates so well with the theme of our protagonists entering new, foreign territories for which they have no maps. That this new world is exponentially larger than the relatively sealed environs of the high school society which they're preparing to leave is deftly underscored by the many references to the earlier experiences of these characters and the familiarity which they have with each other.

There's a fair bit of bros-before-hoes subtext running through the movie, as the protagonists find themselves in many desperate situations which could have been avoided, had they stuck by each others' sides rather than chasing after girls. This is reinforced not so much by Seth's lamentations to that effect as it is by the world outside the characters' control, culminating in a two-pronged climax which only reinforces this theme. Thankfully, an unexpected epilogue adroitly undermines this mentality, suggesting that the change these characters have been fighting so hard to avoid is actually the only way they're going to be able to survive in the world of adults, and that such a world isn't nearly as dreadful as they'd been assuming.

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