Nerds come in all varieties and archetypes. They range from your outgoing social types who dabble in geekery, to the introverts who prefer escapism to annoying people or outdoor activity. Some will continue pursing their hobbies while juggling adult responsibilities. Others will never find significant others and prefer it just fine that way. Still, as history has taught us, many will rise above lifetimes of bullying and being told “those stupid games will never get you anywhere” and become CEOs of Fortune 500 IT companies.
Then there are the shut-ins. Sheltered from the world, nourished on junk food and taught sex ed by online porn, they emerge from their darkened bedrooms as the kind of awkward, pale-faced vampires the Internet generation has cultivated. These are the kinds of nerds who could benefit from social adjustment seminars in college, lest they breach some folkway that comes across as common sense to the better adjusted folk.
Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are shut-ins. They have grown up in a limited universe they willfully confined themselves to, and their primary socialization consists of a co-dependent relationship where they relay what little they understand about girls. Finally, after years of thinking I was alone in this, someone made a movie mirroring my high school life.
Evan is softspoken, reserved, and lanky. Everything about him, from his outward appearance to the way he stumbles over his words, oozes pitiful awkwardness. He needs a hug for daring to stand still in public. Seth, by contrast, is boisterous, vulgar and fat. He talks about sex, a lot, and throws up a persistent, loud tough guy act as a front to mask his insecurities.
One thing Seth and Evan have in common is a virginity, and as soon-to-be-graduating seniors, they are desperate to lose it. They understand the terminology (Seth frequently demonstrates this) but their self-imposed sheltering has left them clueless as to how the game is played. Instead of adapting enough to successfully bed girls they waste that time talking about it. Otherwise they are getting drunk and watching porn with their third wheel acquaintance/verbal punching bag Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, in his debut role.)
Fogell is a wholly different nerd breed, difficult to describe in words except that he makes Seth and Evan look like gods by comparison. He tries to demonstrates confidence and intelligence but has neither, really. Idiot savant could be the right phrase, but even that might be pushing it.
As luck would have it, Seth and Evan’s respective love interests Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIssac) are throwing a party, and now the girls have trusted the boys with supplying the alcohol. Seth and Evan see this as a way to get laid before college, though their approaches are different. Evan wants to remain the nice, rule-abiding benefactor, hoping that Becca will be so smitten with his generosity that she throws him a bone. Seth figures that the only way to get sex from Jules is if they’re both hammered, because in his mind girls as pretty and nice as Jules do not hook up with guys like Seth if they are sober. He tightrope walks on ethical thin ice as he concocts an ambitious scheme to be her drunken mistake. His response any time “the plan” goes awry is panicking like NORAD just went to DEFCON-2.
The plan does go very much awry. The first setback is when Fogell presents his depended upon fake ID, where we learn that his legally aged alter ego is a 25-year old Hawaiian organ donor named McLovin. It was either that or Muhammad. Then Seth and Evan, through a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, get marooned at a very different house party packed with hard drinking, coke snorting, unstable adults. Fogell ends up on a whirlwind ridealong with the world’s most inept but also most entertaining and likable cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogan).
The outer layer plot is your typical teen sex comedy about virginity loss—what it means and the suffering the heroes endure to get there. But Superbad isn’t primarily concerned with that. The real issue at hand is Seth and Evan’s dwindling bromance. We learn from the start that they are bound for different colleges, Evan to Dartmouth and Seth to a state school. Their longtime friendship and devoted loyalty is splitting at the seams, and it’s a hard, slow burn of a pill to swallow. With that in mind, Superbad has an overt message about accepting change and growing apart while growing up. This may not be the last night Seth and Evan spend together in each other’s company, but it’s probably the grand finale of their exclusivity in each other’s universe.
The key here is raw honesty in just about every aspect. The casting choice goes a long way in selling the idea of realistic looking people in a high school setting. Instead of the young characters being played by thirty-somethings they’re late-teen to early-twenties aged actors. Furthermore, they look the parts. Seth and Evan come off as real nerds while the girls are average looking as opposed to glamour models. In other words, they all resemble students we went to high school with.
Seth’s plan to sleep with drunk Jules is, yes, morally bankrupt. I don’t condone it, but after multiple viewings, understand where it’s coming from: not out of a predatory need to exert power but out of pathetic self-loathing, and moreover a misconception of ethics. It’s wrong, but Seth doesn’t know any better. How could he? When your whole life has been pizza bagels and pixels, being around the opposite sex is going to be problematic. There are a lot of Seths out there, and intervening with them before it’s too late is crucial.
Far less realistic is the subplot with Fogell and the cops. While this generates some of the movie’s funniest scenes and gives us interesting characters to hang out with, it detracts from Superbad’s sense of nostalgia. Most of us can relate to high school drama and the stupid lengths we probably went to impress a guy or girl we liked. But I’ll venture that far less of us shot at road signs and did doughnuts with party animal police officers. Superbad lets it all hang out in here, but its heart—and relatability—is with Seth and Evan.
Returning to the cop bits for a moment, I am reminded of something important: Superbad is best experienced with the R-rated/theatrical cut. The Unrated version stretches out scenes long past their welcome and otherwise kills the pacing that makes the jokes so fresh and fast. People I have talked to who found Superbad boring were watching the Unrated cut. It also pains me that after nine years we still haven’t gotten a damned home media release with both versions in one package. Superbad can only be found in an either/or double-dip, but trust me on this: the theatrical version is the right one.
The verdict: it stays, from now until the day oxidization eats the disc. Superbad is a great comedy, rife with funny moments, a bit of gross-out, thoughts to reflect on, and a healthy side of poignancy. It’s no secret that losing people hurt. Realizing that growing up serves up a lot more pain beyond that is a difficult truth to endure. The movie encapsulates a time and place as well as I remember it.
Now if I could only find the original case…
FINAL GRADE: A-