Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have been nominated for the same number of Academy Awards. Stone’s win obviously gives her the edge in any tallying up of awards acclaim, but it remains an odd alignment given that any reasonable assessment of the two pegs Stone as the stronger actor. I wish I could boast that I celebrated Stone’s acting when I wrote about Superbad ages ago. The evidence is clear, though. Much as I found her winning, I didn’t feel compelled to cite her work. As always when it comes to features with Judd Apatow’s name on the credit, I devoted an overabundance of words to my mixed emotions around his clear influence in the finished product.
It’s amazing how quickly this Judd Apatow brand has developed. Just a few years ago he was best known, if he was known at all, for serving as producer on a batch of television series that were woefully underappreciated, even though they just got better and better and better. Now he’s the anointed savior of big screen comedy, the guy who single-handedly is rescuing moviegoers from the entrenched safety of tepid, PG-13, mirthless constructions in favor of wildly profane expressions of the id, wringing high comedy from the minefields of modern masculinity. This perception is now so entrenched that the new film Superbad arrives with nary a mention that creators other than Apatow were deeply involved, even though Apatow is only credited as the producer of the film.
In a way that’s understandable as Superbad feels more directly related to Apatow’s own directing efforts The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked up than other films he’s signed his name to as producer in recent years. The tone is recognizably in line with Apatow’s own, his primary theme of the tug of war between maturity and ribald boyishness is vividly in place, and it has the suddenly familiar parade of old Freaks and Geeks friends, including the scary old drunk guy from “Beers and Weirs.” And it’s hard to believe that Apatow didn’t have a hand in helping Freaks and Knocked Up cast member Seth Rogen shape the screenplay he wrote with a high school friend into something that could entice a major studio. Maybe the really remarkable thing is that Apatow has developed such a clear signature with so few film outings.
Superbad is a familiar comedy about high school buddies looking for sexual conquests as graduation and a world of nothing but changes looms. It is delivered with a bit more intelligence, far more daring, and aspirations to something more lasting than the films that haunted the late hours of HBO in the mid-1980’s. While very funny, it’s also somewhat scattershot. There are stretches that spin with improvisational glee, but could also have used a little pruning. Director Greg Mottola employs a technique that’s clean and open. He draws it all in and orchestrates certain sequences very well (a nightmare vision of what happens when you’re still throwing high school parties fifteen years after graduation is especially notable). A little added panache in the editing room might have bolstered the whole film. There are plainly portions of the film where Mottola doesn’t seem to know that he’s already delivered his joke and it’s time to move on.
In the leading roles, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera both play on established personae to great effect. Hill is the same sort of aggressive, exasperated character he played in Knocked Up, and Cera’s incredibly sincere Evan lets him use the awkward stammers and other verbal card shuffles he honed to perfection on Arrested Development. The contrast between the styles is sharp and strong enough to enhance their comic teamwork even if it makes it a little hard to see the hearty friendship that is central to the movie’s emotional pull.
Since I’ve already (like everyone else) extensively considered this film’s placement in the Apatow oeuvre, here’s one more thought. Both Virgin and Knocked up seem to argue that the warm comfort of romantic relationships in better than the the dispiriting cycle of male friendship atrophied into redundancy. Superbad is the counterargument. As the boys connect with charming, highly understanding and forgiving girls, their friendship is symbolically and sadly sacrificed. Visually it is literally depicted as a descent. Maybe the film’s viewpoint is unique, after all.