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Superbad
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"Superbad is Anything But"

Written by Steven Walker

If you call your movie Superbad, you are just asking for it from the critics.  If the movie sucks then all of the reviews will be titled, “Superbad is Super Bad.”

It was a curious title to me anyway since I did not see a connection between it and the story as portrayed in the trailers.  Yet once the opening credits began…it all made sense.  The movie may be set in modern day, and it is undoubtedly a product of this decade, but it is channeling the 70’s exploitation spirit marvelously.

Comedies are the trickiest of genres.  Some might argue horror, but horror fans can enjoy bad horror movies if the blood is satisfying.  A comedy without laughs is simply unwatchable.  This is complicated further if you ask what is funny.  Everyone has a different sense of humor so a comedy is going to work for some people and fail for others.

For me, Superbad was absolutely hilarious.  Quite possibly the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie in years (unless you count Pathfinder, but that was for entirely different reasons).  The remarkable thing is that Superbad has a lot working against it.

I hate teen comedies.  This is not a bias against the subgenre, but merely a belief that most of them are poorly made and unfunny.  In the last 20 years I’ve enjoyed Road Trip and parts of Old School, which is only barely a teen comedy.  I appreciate the intent behind Not Another Teen Movie but do not think it was an intelligent enough satire to work. 

I have discerned three main issues that are killing the modern comedy for me: 

1.  The One Joke Plot  ~  I despise American Pie with a fiery passion and will never understand how that movie became some kind of cultural touchstone.  I believe the main reason for its suckage is the fact that the whole movie is hung on one stupid joke: What if a virgin guy got caught fucking a pie because someone told him it would feel like a vagina.  I feel dirty just from typing that.  A good comedy needs a good premise…not just one vulgar joke.  (I’m not saying it is wrong to find that joke funny, but it was not arrived at by higher brain functions.) 

The premise of Superbad is three underage guys who somehow have to get the booze for the graduation party of the year.  This plot is inspired both in its simplicity and its endless potential for new jokes.

2.  The Sketch Who Wished It Was A Plot  ~  Another fatal fault in teen comedies is staging scenes like they are sketch comedy.  The very nature of sketch comedy requires the performers to be aware that they are joking.  Every action is a knowing buildup to the punch line.  This works fine on Saturday Night Live (not really, as that show hasn’t been funny in nearly 15 years, but you know what I mean), but a narrative movie demands a different approach.  The characters can’t be winking at the audience, they have to be living in the moment so the humor will grow organically.  Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle are the worst recent committers of this sin.  For classic examples of how to do it right, watch The Blues Brothers or any given Monty Python.

Superbad is such a well put together whole that not one single scene feels like a sketch.  The characters are so dimensional, and act so much like people you know in real life, that you forget you are watching scripted scenes.

3.  What Laws of Physics?  ~  This is the one that irritates me the most.  There are legions of comedies out there that have no respect for the laws of physics.  When people fall on concrete, it really hurts even if it was just a short stumble.  If you get hit in the face with a wrench, you are going to be bleeding profusely and probably need stitches.  If your comedy is not going to play by the laws of physics, then you need to clearly establish alternate rules.  It is totally okay to throw out physics if you are consistent about it. 

A great success at this is Home Alone.  Love it or hate it, the movie is blatantly a live action Looney Tune from the beginning, so the fact that horrible violence never really injures the crooks is okay.                    

Another great example is Groundhog Day, one of my all-time favorite movies.  It has a wild fantasy premise, namely ‘man gets caught in time warp,’ yet the parts of the movie which are supposed to be real are very real.  The Punxsutawney that Phil Connors is trapped in is not that different from the town where I grew up and the people act like real small town folk.  When Phil goes on a series of suicide attempts, they are all plausible and realistic.  The threat of injury is real.  This makes it easier to believe in the fantasy elements.

Even though I enjoyed much of movies like Old School and Dodgeball, both horribly violate this rule.  Old School goes halfway through with all indications that this is a real-world comedy that could actually happen.  Then there is a scene where a 300 pound man is jerked off a roof by a rope attached to his dick.  He lands on an open manhole cover.  This would not only kill him, but splatter him on multiple tiers.  What happens in the movie?  Everyone laughs and he is fine in the next scene.  I believe the technical term for that is ‘Jumping the Shark.’

Dodgeball also has a bizarre contradiction.  The physics of the sport itself are depicted in a fairly realistic way…yet people take wrenches to the face like they were made of foam-core (and probably were).  Why do this?  If you want physics, then you can get a laugh with something less damaging than a wrench.  If you don’t want physics, then make the dodgeball games themselves more stylized. 

I realize I’ve spent a lot of my Superbad review talking about others movies, but comedies are tricky beasts to write up.  I don’t want to spoil the jokes.  Instead, I’ve listed some of the big problems I have with most comedies and proclaim Superbad to be free of all of them. 

The movie abides almost fully by the laws of physics and gets great humor out of it.  When Seth gets hit by a car, lesser filmmakers would have sent him flying through the air, hitting a tree, and probably have a coconut fall on his head.  What director Greg Mottola does is let gravity be gravity.  We discover that an awkward fat kid eating asphalt in real-time and shouting “What the fuck?!” through a bloody lip is way funnier that any wirework would have been.

It is also awesome to see a college party in a movie that actually feels like a college party.  After six years of college and many different kinds of parties, it is easy for me to tell screenwriters who actually remember college from those who just heard about it.  I never went to high school so I can only speculate about the high school party scene, but it felt awfully genuine.

Another major obstacle the movie overcomes for me personally is that I don’t like to talk about sex.  I think that is private business between you and your lover.  As such, I tend to avoid the kind of guys who always talk about sex and display a general lack of respect for women. 

Superbad is based around three such guys (Seth and Fogell anyway…I suspect Evan was just along for the ride.)  For me to like and sympathize with them is a remarkable feat that requires a combination of good writing, good directing, and good acting.

I do have one big criticism, though, and that is the cops.  It’s not that they are bad, actually they’re hysterical, but they definitely stretch credibility.  No one thing they do is too much, but the cumulative effect is pretty unrealistic.  They are just too bad at being cops to stay employed as such.  The writers could have toned down the cops just a little bit without sacrificing any of the humor.  Yet this is such a minor fault in a movie that does so much right that I can’t begrudge it. 

The true test of a comedy is time, of course, so in ten years we will know for sure how good Superbad is.  I hope it goes on to create the same cultural ripples that American Pie did, because it is infinitely more deserving.      

 

 

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