The use of cellphones, G-strings, sayings like “fo sho”, and one or two pop songs place Superbad in this day and age but much of the look of Greg Mottola’s second feature has a throwback quality. It’s apparent in the constant use of 1970s and 80s lovelorn soul-funk, the use of VHS surveillance, and a predilection for archaic fashion. No one uses a computer but Michael Cera’s Evan plays Playstation. The internet must exist and yet the best way to obtain alcohol is from the local liquor store with an unconvincing fake ID. The cops remain wildly unprofessional and desperate to cover up their own wrongdoing, so at least some elements of society are still unmoved by time.
At first, it’s tempting to see the overbearing use of cultural signifiers more in line with what Evan’s father or the unseen parents of Seth (Jonah Hill) as a matter of identity, searching for an outward cultural identity rooted in the past to escape the believed uniformity of the present. That turns out to be about half-right. It is a matter of identity but one that seems to be distinctly distressing to Seth and sticking out in his class is not a problem that Hill’s foul-mouthed teen schemer has at any point. He breaks up a soccer game to tell Evan that his crush, Jules (Emma Stone), asked him to do her a favor and therefore wants to fellate him. Right before that, he openly ridicules Jules’ friend for asking for a pack of hard lemonade. This is not a young man who has an issue with making an impression.
What he does have an issue with is separation and transition. Change, to put it more bluntly. With Evan about to leave for college alongside Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), AKA McLovin, Seth feels abandoned and helpless, implicitly labeled the odd one out of their trio of friends. His use of Evan’s father’s wardrobe and his crass, perverse disposition affords him some semblance of maturity, of knowing what Evan and Fogell will learn in college, which is comically misguided but also increasingly endearing as Superbad heads into its second half. As questionable as some of his language is and his sense of superiority might come off, there’s an unmistakable fragility in Hill’s boisterous performance.
For all the illustrations of veiny dicks and the drunken confession of love for one another in the end, the director, Greg Mottola, never openly chases the rabbit on how this relationship reflects Seth’s sexuality. It’s suggested, but Mottola’s bigger focus is on the dynamics of attraction. Jules can sling jokes just as fast as Seth but she is thoroughly pragmatic and ethical as a person, something that is revealed when she rejects Seth at her party. And Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script, loosely based on their own teenaged friendship, goes a step further to depict how women are just as susceptible to packaged concepts of how a woman is supposed to act when she’s having sex or trying to arouse her partner. Martha MacIsaac, who plays Evan’s crush, Becca, smartly skewers these preconceptions when her character drunkenly and clumsily talks about being “wet” or tries to seductively strip for him. Her delivery suggests she was simply reciting lines she remembered from porn or some passages from a steamy read.
Where the first wave of watches of Mottola’s film felt dedicated to the rapid-fire delivery of guffaws, the more recent rewatches have yielded something far more stark and honest underneath the rampant use of “vag,” “fuck,” and “holy shit.” Evan’s approximation of chivalry is all the more disquieting when the shock of the humor fades, and it speaks directly to the fearlessness of Cera’s performance. Evan genuinely means well, as evidenced by his refusal to have drunk sex with Becca, but his committed adoration of her also has the scent of an obsessive. It’s a devastatingly sober view of how simultaneously awkward, adorable, and distressing male attention can come off as in the throes of puberty.
There’s something similarly alarming about the way Fogell begins to glorify the two cops that take him on a journey into the night, played by Rogen and Bill Hader, after he’s involved with the robbery at TJ’s. It’s not coincidence that Hader’s police officer looks exactly like a grown-up Fogell, and the way Plasse’s character gets jazzed up over using the officer’s gun to shoot at a police cruiser, smashed up and engulfed in flames. Was that just the seed of gun worship being planted in a few seconds of “good times?” Mottola leaves that matter unsettled but lingering in the air as the movie creeps toward its end and he ingeniously bleeds a natural, comical appetite for destruction in Fogell with a pointed awareness of the psychological effects that getting away with so much can have on a young, white man with too much power as it is. This is especially true of the cover-up after Evan accidentally pushes Seth in the way of their cruiser while they’re playing Star Wars with their flashlights…while driving, where an awkward, aggressive sense of power overtakes Hader’s character.
The reason that Superbad continues to garner big laughs and not gasps of horror is Mottola, who has a full sense of how the weirdness of adolescence often recedes to reveal men of character. Working with a roster of genius performers, he captures a particular thrill of talking absolute bullshit when you’re young, about sex, wisdom, fashion, taste, and everything else. He as much as Rogen and Goldberg is equally blunt about how quickly the self-aggrandizing flurries of boastful speak and cure-word gymnastics can become a veil for insecurity and indecision. That final gaze from the descending escalator is as much about losing his best friend as it is about losing a way of being that comforted him. It’s what makes Superbad retain its early bombast and sneaky emotional undercurrent: age only lends its narrative contours and flecks of character complexity and unexpected substance.