Ivan Vukovic goes back to high school with Superbad and bemoans Hollywood’s currently bleak landscape of eminently quotable mainstream comedies.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: I was very much the intended audience for Superbad during the summer it was released. I was in high school. I was a year younger than the lead characters. I liked everything in the universe of Judd Apatow. I was a Michael Cera fan back when there were only dozens – (dozens!) – of us that had seen Arrested Development. And perhaps most importantly: I was pretty close to losing my virginity.
Most of what I’m going to write and gush over here is coming from the perspective of a cis white dude, and I’m sure there are plenty of problematic aspects in both this film and just about every other movie that I’m going to reference in a positive light during this review. I don’t know if this is a disclaimer or an apology, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge it.
The story, to the extent that I need to describe it: our heroes are Seth and Evan, two friends on the verge of graduating high school and on a quest to obtain and supply alcohol for a party that will be attended by their respective females crushes whom they are trying to lose their virginities to before the start of the summer. They are joined by their oddball friend Fogle (famous nicknamed McLovin during the course of their exploits), who spends most of the story separated from them and in a subplot where he befriends two lazy off-the-book police officers who are driven to show him a good time and prove to themselves how fun-loving cops can be. It ultimately ends with McLovin losing his virginity in a played-for-laughs manner, while Seth and Evan remain undeflowered after both of their own attempts are foiled by a combination of misfire and reluctance.
There’s a case to be made that this is a story that, at its heart, is about moral fiber and prioritizing friendship over everything else, but hell, I could probably argue a similar thing about Entourage and be met with some well-deserved eye rolls.
During my senior year of high school, this was the movie, the great equalizer. Everyone quoted Jonah Hill’s character in everyday conversation. I sat next one of the biggest jocks in our school during math class, and every morning we would hum “These Eyes” to one another. When someone would ask me how old I was as I took that first sip of beer, I would coyly (and obnoxiously) respond with, “Old enough…..to party.”
There was something special about this film for me, and I knew right away that it probably appealed even more to me even more than it did the rest of my peers. At the time, I was the odd man out who was pretty turned off by the then-current scene of mainstream comedic cinema, which was mostly dominated by Will Ferrell vehicles where he would time and again play a celebrity or sports star whose entire personality would be built around a mix of bravado, self-obsession, and misogyny. It worked for me here and there, but the rest of the time I was led to believe that my relationship with comedy was strained because I didn’t like Old School and Anchorman.
By contrast, Superbad was a huge breath of fresh air. Here was a movie where Jonah Hill’s character served as the archetypical falsely confident loud mouth who objectifies women in the way you expect him to for this genre, but wait—then you had Michael Cera as the equally if not more central character who I could actually somewhat relate to: square, hormonal, and confused and loosely committed to the idea of what he wanted his first time to be like.
Moreover, the bits of the movie that were funniest to me were some of moments that were seemingly completely unappreciated by everyone else I knew. From Bill Hader referencing Yoda as a character specifically from Attack of the Clones, to the virtually unnecessary scene at the very end of the film with Seth trying on jeans at the mall, to “I have your information” becoming my go-to statement when my friends and I would plan to connect and make plans later on in the day, I found the joke density to be unlike anything I had ever seen before.
I wasn’t the only one I knew who connected with the film in a unique way. I often think back to a discussion I had with a co-worker of mine at the time while we were cleaning out theater auditoriums at the very multiplex where we worked and spent most of our free time reaping the benefits of seeing movies for free. During that conversation, he told me that he liked the movie but hated the scenes where the main characters find themselves at a seedy party hosted by an older generation where they feel out of their element. He remarked, “I’ve been to those kinds of parties and they’re awful. I had a very visceral reaction to that chunk of the movie. It made me really uncomfortable and nervous just like those parties do.” I couldn’t relate to what he was describing at the time, but in the years following I came to identify with his sentiment.
In preparing to write this review, I flirted with the idea of not even bothering to rewatch the movie, as I had already done so a number of times over the past few years even as recently as a few months ago. During a Christmas weekend year or two back, a few family members of my generation and I were trying to pick a nostalgic comedy to watch. After our third failed attempt to make it through Anchorman and subsequent disappointment that Dude, Where’s My Car? wasn’t as funny as it was when we were eleven years old, there was unanimous agreement that we needed to detox with a surefire hit, and Superbad was immediately suggested with no objection.
Each time I watch the movie, I’m impressed by how undated it feels. It’s well-known that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg originally wrote this script as teenagers growing up in the ’90s, but its sense of timelessness exceeds the decade-long window between the movie’s conception and release. If you strip away a couple of updated script edits involving mobile phones and references to internet porn, you’re left with a story that could realistically be set at any point during the last four decades.
The world needs another Superbad right about now. By that, I don’t mean that we’re lacking more tales about two white high school dudes and their sex-driven banter and escapades (and fine, on the surface level that’s probably how this film probably comes across to most people). It’s been done. What’s missing these days is any kind mainstream comedy that’s as oft-quoted and well-received as this one was during its time.
It’s a bleak landscape right now for mass-appeal comedy films. In 2007, Superbad had some good something-for-everyone company—Hot Fuzz, Knocked Up, Juno, Blades of Glory, The Simpsons Movie, etc. 2008 was also a strong one, with offerings including Tropic Thunder, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Zack & Miri, Role Models, and so on. Nowadays, I challenge my friends to try to name three major comedies released in the past year. They always fail. Each year is thinner than the last. 2011 gave us Bridesmaids, 2012 offered 21 Jump Street, 2013 had This is the End (and I’m reaching here now), 2014 did little better than The Lego Movie, and 2015 is probably the last time wide release comedies made a modest splash with the already forgotten Trainwreck and Spy.
I’m so desperate for something new and widely beloved that I root for every single major comedy film on the verge of release, nervously checking its Rotten Tomatoes rating to see if this is going to be the one—the crowd-pleaser that we all rally around. Movies that I would have completely pre-dismissed years ago—Baywatch, Snatched, The House, Rough Night—I wanted all of them to do well. I want something to do well.
From the perspective of my own personal coming-of-age, Superbad was the tent pole of a golden age of funny movies. Now, don’t get me wrong: comedy as a whole is certainly alive and well. Television has never been stronger and I can certainly rattle of a list of niche/fringe comedy films from this year that I and many others loved. And maybe that’s just the direction we’re headed. Maybe that’s fine.
But that phenomenon that I experienced in the fall of 2007, the one where everyone at my school was firing off quotes from a single movie we and everyone we know had seen and adored? Nothing will ever compare to that, and I hope that every future generation of high schoolers gets their own version of Superbad at some point during those formative years.