Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 18, 2007 11:07 pm 
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Revenge of the nerds: the next generation

The starting point of this movie is a theme that's come up before--it's basic to Brian Robbins' silly and stupid but entertaining The Perfect Score (2004): two best friends in high school are going to be separated because one got into a good college and the other didn't. As summer approaches a couple of the cool "in" girls ask them to supply the liquor for a party and they think they have one last chance to lose their virginity before they go away.

The friends are the bushy-haired and overweight Seth (Jonah Hill) and the taller, lean, silky voiced Evan (Michael Cera) They talk dirty, but they don't know what they're talking about. Mottola's low keyed road comedy Daytrippers appeared nine years ago and he's since been working in TV. He's now joined the team of Judd Apatow, who produced the very popular 40-Year-Old Virgin and the current big summer hit Knocked Up. Superbad partly grows out of the late nineties TV series Apatow produced, "Freaks and Geeks," whose team Seth Rogen, star of Knocked Up and writer and cast member here, was an important part of. Superbad is the brainchild of Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who conceived it together when they were in their early teens in Vancouver.

I'm not sure what the difference between freaks and geeks is, or if it matters. The word nerd comes to mind when one watches the amusing antics of Seth and Evan's pal, Fogell (newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who has spectacles and an idiotic grin.

The point is they're all outcasts, not the campus "winners." "Freaks and Geeks" focused on a high school world where nothing was ever fair, where outcast status linked stoners and bad students and smart kids who weren't social -- as symbolized by the almost-romance between dumb dreamboat Daniel (James Franco) and the sensitive outcast and mathlete Lindsey (Linda Cardellini). "Perfect" guys and girls are who we'd like to identify with, and that's why big stars are so often gorgeous. But they aren't who we really are: "perfect" people aren't real. In movies geeks and nerds usually aren't real either; they're stereotypes. But Superbad gets away from that. Seth and Evan are a source of comedy, but they aren't unreal. They're just not aggressive like the campus macho men -- the types who're always beating up on undersized Sam (John Francis Daly), Lindsey's little brother in "Freaks and Geeks," and who spit on Seth and warn him not to come to the cool girls' party.

Seth and Evan do plan on going to the party anyway, helped by Fogell, who's just acquired a fake ID that says he's a 25-year-old organ donor from Hawaii named simply McLovin (no first name). Fogell's going to buy alcohol. The babes (AKA "ladies," using the Player name) are going to get sloshed and get laid by mistake, and as Seth exclaims, "We could be that mistake!"

Fogell gets clobbered at the liquor store by a holdup man, then taken in tow by two very wayward and unserious cops (played by Rogen and Bill Hagen). Seth and Evan get mixed up with a dodgy guy who takes them to a more dangerous party. The way to the cool girls' party is as convoluted as Harry and Kumar's trip to White Castle.

Superbad isn't necessarily funnier than earlier teen or college comedies, the Harry and Kumars and Dude Where's My Cars, but it has a humanistic arc they lack. Like Knocked Up, it leads off with a stream of foul language and winds up with sweetness and doing the right thing. It's also a celebration of male friendship. It dares to speak of male love and depict it as something abandoned on the way to growing up, like Seth's drawings of penises--which he confesses to Evan to having done obsessively as a little boy and which are shown in a phantasmagoric panorama in the middle and in the closing credits.

The joke of these virgins locked in male-male bonding is that they can't deal with a babe when she throws herself at them. In a world of 40-year-old virgins it's no surprise Michael Cera was recruited from a TV series called "Arrested Development." Apatow says Seth Rogan really lives like the character he plays in Knocked Up.

In its blend of dirty talk and sweetness Apatow's and his posse's comedies are something different for which the current audience is more than ready, and his productions are beginning to multiply like prairie fires. It's great the way Apatow keeps gathering contributors and remaining faithful to them, and lets actors improvise freely. This is likely to wind up being not just a body of work, but a new school of American screen comedy, not unlike earlier productions of the kind but more fertile, almost a rival to the Eighties youth movies.

And this success is deserved. There's a movement and energy in Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad that shows the team know what they're doing. It's not all perfection, however. Knocked Up seems like wishful thinking on several levels. Is it fair to the smart young woman to accept a nerdy stoner? Despite reported hilarious improvised riffs on abortion during the shoot, how come that option is given such short shrift in the finished film? The physical business in Superbad is crude, and not really that funny. Seth gets clobbered and hit by a car too often.

The whole episode of the cops in Superbad is not only preposterous but tiresome. It may be "nice" to turn cops into practical jokers, but it's false. They have guns. And they're loaded. They have the power of menace. Fogell's adoption by the cops seems like a suspicious kind of wishful thinking, even though, like everything else, it's well-meaning. Nonetheless Mintz-Plasse is good in these scenes. Though he is the most farcical of the main characters, his nerd morphing into cool dude is one of the best acting turns in the movie, while as the slippery, fluent, but terrified Evan, Cera is the most complex and real. The overtly Jewish Seth may be the spokesperson of the story but he has wonderful foils in Evan and Fogell.

There's nothing sinister or revolutionary about the guys' language. It is a great exaggeration to think Seth & co. are so much more sophisticated or deviant in their sexual lore than earlier generations. Society has merely granted them license to use in public the bluntest language about what they, like their predecessors, still barely understand. But the language, post-Kevin Smith as it is, is a great source of relieved laughter. Something that was always there is now okay to speak about -- like two straight guys who love each other.

NOTES: I got some of my information about Apatow & Co. from Damon Wise in The Guardian. Superbad, by the way, has a terrific opening title sequence with silhouettes of Evan and Seth dancing.

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