The 1984 teen comedy Sixteen Candles featured an unforgettable group of geeks. Sporting bad haircuts, retainers and ray guns, Anthony Michael Hall’s entourage watched in awe as their shrimpy ringleader snagged Molly Ringwald’s panties and hooked up with a sloshed homecoming queen.
Bit players in the John Hughes flick, geeks have won leading-man status in the ensuing years. (One of those social pariahs was a young John Cusack.) But no movie has captured the spirit of bright, awkward, hormone-addled lads quite like Superbad. Greg Mottola’s comedy takes the ’80s horny-high-schooler film formula and updates it to the age of Internet porn and misunderstandings caused by poor cellphone reception. Cross one of those old B movies with the raunchy, motormouth cleverness of Judd Apatow — who co-produced — and you get a comedy that rarely lags.
If Superbad feels authentic, that’s because its script was first-drafted by a pair of 13-year-olds. At least, that’s the claim of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, the now-grown writers. (Rogen also starred in Apatow’s Knocked Up.) In its outlines, the plot reads like a high-school freshman’s fantasy of his senior year. Pudgy, brash, Afro’ed Seth (Jonah Hill) and slight, nervous Evan (Michael Cera) are best buds fated to part ways in college. They’re also virgins. When one of their old friends, a girl who’s unexpectedly become “totally hot,” invites them to her party, they offer to provide the liquor. Being no more proud than they are PC, they’re hoping the girls will get trashed enough to make them the beneficiaries of some sozzled “mistakes.”
But fantasy quickly becomes nightmare. The boys’ prospects of getting booze hinge on a friend even nerdier than they are (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to have a fake ID. Problem is, he’s used it to rechristen himself “McLovin” — no last name, just like Cher. Who’s going to sell liquor to an implausibly named kid who speaks in a whine and moves like a cross between a female impersonator and an alien?
With his long face and hair that looks painted on, Mintz-Plasse bears an uncanny resemblance to Alan Ruck, who played the geek in another Hughes movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Some actors just slap on a pair of glasses to play a dweeb, but true oddness can’t be faked. Mintz-Plasse has it, and he shows how the über-geek’s utter lack of self-consciousness can sometimes, through a perverse alchemy, make him the cool one.
Though they’re more socially acceptable on the surface, Seth and Evan have no game at all: They’re too busy plotting and posturing to notice when girls actually like them. Unlike most of its ’80s forebears, the movie presents high-school dating and mating in all their pathetic, absurdist — and obscene — glory. Evan prepares for the night with lube as well as a condom, and when one of the girls over-imbibes, she acts as if she’s trying diligently to imitate a “Girls Gone Wild” video. (The movie gently suggests that the slurred affections of a drunk aren’t really such a turn-on.)
Sometimes Superbad regresses to its origins in 13-year-old tale-spinning. The scenes involving two oafish, id-driven cops (Rogen and “Saturday Night Live”’s Bill Hader) cross the line from satire into silliness: You can just hear preteen Rogen and Goldberg giggling as they imagine two law officers who are, like, way dorkier than they are. It’s a kid’s image of adulthood as an extended childhood, only with sex, booze and deadly weapons.
Which may not, come to think, always be so far from the truth. Adults with a high tolerance for elaborate dick jokes will find that Superbad reacquaints them with the sniggering teen who lurks within. Revenge of the nerds, indeed.