It appears that the masses have finally caught up with Judd Apatow and company. On the heels of such early successes as The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show, Apatow seemed poised to break big. When Freaks and Geeks hit the airwaves back in 1999, Beverly Hills 90210 was breathing its last gasp. The era of dressed-up hair metal had long since passed, and despite the fact that grunge was on the wane, viewers were still craving something a little less glossy when it came to the subject of teen-centric TV dramas. Sadly, the Emmy-winning Freaks and Geeks may have proven a bit too far from the status quo for most viewers to digest at that point. Undeclared seemed to offer much of the same storytelling style with a bit more polish, but the show's time slots shifted around so frequently that even die-hard fans often found it hard to keep up, and that show suffered a premature demise as well. But few could have foreseen the remarkable impact Apatow's vision would have in the realm of cinema. The subsequent success of such Apatow-produced features as Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Knocked Up proved that his comic sensibilities translated remarkably well to the big screen. Add to this the fact that the casts and crews of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were now among the most promising talents in Hollywood, and those oft-made comments about Apatow's series being ahead of their time took on a somewhat prophetic tone.
Of the many talented Freaks and Geeks alumni, young writer and actor Seth Rogen emerged as one of the most ambitious. With writing credits on Undeclared, producing credits on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and a star-making turn as a perpetually stoned but gruffly likeable lead in the latter, Rogen proved that he was equally capable of carrying a film on both sides of the camera. In Superbad, Arrested Development star Michael Cera steps aboard the Apatow/Rogen power train, and bit player Jonah Hill (who essayed brief but memorable roles in both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) continues to expand his role within the crew. The result is a hilarious coming-of-age story with a heart -- an impetuously vulgar and unabashedly obscene heart, but precisely the kind of heart that gives this formidable team's films a notable edge over the countless other teen comedies that flood the multiplex and home video markets. Likewise, as post-Napoleon Dynamite retro-kitsch obsession continues to flourish in the world of comedy (see Kickin' It Old Skool and Eagle vs. Shark), Superbad effectively straddles the line between nostalgia and chichi without ever feeling forced. This is a comedy that seems to exist somewhat out of time: of course the use of cell phones and other modern technologies make it obvious that the action is taking place in the age of the Internet, but with a soundtrack that features Curtis Mayfield, Rick James, and Roots, and fashions that stretch from the 1970s straight through to Gen Y and beyond, Superbad seems to function as a love letter to these trends rather than a slave to them.
Superbad was co-scripted by childhood friends Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Cera and Hill play the screenwriters' onscreen counterparts), and these decidedly personal origins show. Of course Superbad also has its fair share of big gags -- a hilariously lewd montage and an awkward rendition of the Guess Who's "These Eyes" are particular highlights -- but the heart and soul of Superbad is in the small moments, the naturalistic scenes in which Hill's Seth and Cera's Evan are simply being their hormone-driven, foul-mouthed selves. The film works best when Seth and Evan are trading barbs and simply playing off one another, a testament to the enduring friendship shared between the two screenwriters. There's little doubt that the non-stop obscenity and honest portrayal of teen sex in all its awkward glory could prove somewhat off-putting to parents and more sensitive viewers -- Superbad is rated R for good reason -- yet these are precisely the traits that are likely to endear it to its target audience. And while the subject of two longtime friends' coming of age and impending separation doesn't necessarily have the gravity of, say, an unintended pregnancy, it is a situation that most everyone can relate to and it's rarely been portrayed as candidly and memorably in a comedy.
The supporting players are uniformly excellent as well: Rogen and SNL alum Bill Hader are unforgettable as a pair of cops who make the Super Troopers look like pillars of the community, and newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a revelation as subordinate dweeb Fogell. Despite the fact that Greg Mottola's pedestrian direction and Russ T. Alsobrook's flat cinematography give the film the look of a typical episode of Undeclared (unsurprising since both have worked largely in television), perhaps the biggest complaint worth mentioning is the same problem that plagued 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up: clocking in at almost two hours, the film just feels a bit too lengthy for a crass but sincere comedy. Regardless of that admittedly minor gripe, this film delivers laughs so consistently that the 20 minutes of excessive fat taste more like fried Twinkies than tough gristle.