‘Superbad’: Breathless, By Kurt Loder

Heartening proof that comedy can still go too far.

So is it funny? The best parts — and there are many of them — trigger fits of helpless, howling glee. Is it raunchy, depraved, filthy beyond all excuse or redemption? Only the best parts.

I do have some reservations. One of the ads says this is a movie “from the guy who brought you ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘Knocked Up.’ ” That’s a little misleading. “Superbad” wasn’t directed by the guy who did those movies. That would be gross-out crossover genius Judd Apatow, who’s one of the producers here. “Superbad” was directed by Greg Mottola, best-known for “The Daytrippers” (1996) and some episodes of the “Arrested Development” TV series — good things to be known for, actually.

Nor was “Superbad” written by the guys who wrote those films. That would be Apatow again (working with Steve Carell on “Virgin”). This movie was written by Seth Rogen and his longtime partner Evan Goldberg (“Da Ali G Show”). Rogen, of course, broke through as an actor, memorably in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” unforgettably in “Knocked Up.” He also has a substantial role in this picture. (Unfortunately, he’s mostly wasted in it.)

All of which explains why “Superbad” isn’t the jubilant capper of some comedy trifecta. It lacks the structural elegance and the carefully calibrated blend of raunch and sweetness that distinguished “Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” What we have here is a teen comedy that Rogen and Goldberg wrote when they were teenagers themselves, about a decade ago. It echoes all kinds of earlier teen flicks, from “American Graffiti” to “American Pie,” and it has the lumpy construction of an oft-reworked script that’s been knocking around for a long time with no takers. When you’re not gasping with laughter, you may notice that certain elements in the picture (a recurring drunkard, for example) are oddly flat. Pretty soon, though, you’re gasping with laughter again, and you don’t care.

The action is set on a long summer day and night, and it swirls around two lifelong friends who’ll be heading off to college in the fall. The soulfully bashful Evan (Michael Cera, a born star) and the rowdy, loutish Seth (Jonah Hill, a born sidekick) are on a mission to score booze for a teen bacchanal and to get down with two girls there (Martha MacIsaac and Emma Stone). These guys know all about women, of course (Seth’s addiction to Internet porn has been especially useful in this regard), even though they’ve never actually had sex with any. Classic, clueless dweebs, they rope in their even more pathetic buddy Fogell (first-time wunderkind Christopher Mintz-Plasse) on this liquor scam, because he has a fake ID. Unfortunately, it’s a Hawaiian organ-donor card that identifies him as a person by the name of McLovin — that’s all, just McLovin. (“What’re you, Seal?” Evan asks.)

The movie is a procession of loaded situations, some of them hysterical, most of them bristling with the most scabrous gags in … well, in movie history, maybe. There are more penis jokes than you might hear at a urologists’ beer bust. (I was disappointed not to find at least a couple of penises listed as consultants in the credits.) Bodily fluids get a thorough workout, too, especially those of the menstrual variety, which are regarded with frank horror. (Will women be willing to weather this picture? The two sitting behind me when I saw it were laughing so loudly at one or another deplorable wisecrack that they sometimes drowned out the topper that usually followed quickly on its heels.)

And what doesn’t quite work? There’s a seduction scene that’s strangely heatless (the movie is boldly devoid of nudity, although that’s not the main problem in this case). And the two interloping cops played by Rogen and Bill Hader (of “Saturday Night Live”) soon grow tiresome: They’re supposed to be bigger dorks than the kids, but their idiot antics — gleefully running red lights, taking potshots at stop signs with their pistols, standing McLovin to some brewskis at a local bar — are too broadly drawn, and the movie slumps a little more deeply each time they crop up. (There are occasional flashes of Rogen’s peerless line delivery, though, as when he advises Fogell not to bother trolling for good women in bars, but to go where they actually congregate: “spin classes, farmers’ markets, a pumpkin patch.”)

The picture’s most peculiar feature, however, is the awkward homoerotic subtext in Seth and Evan’s relationship. This may have been an attempted depiction of adolescent sexual ambiguity, but it feels weird, especially during a sleeping-bag scene toward the end, which comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere and leaves no laughs at all in its wake.

Still, “Superbad” accomplishes one mighty thing: It demonstrates that even in a supposedly anything-goes comedic period, it’s still possible to go too far — to be fearlessly, shockingly funny. The movie is an extended riff on an embryonic male sensibility that is not always outgrown. At one point, Seth is licking his lips over the well-known fact that a drunk woman will have sex with anybody — she’ll regret it in the morning, but so what? Just think, he crows to Evan, “We could be that mistake!”

Be sure to check out Kurt Loder’s review of “The Invasion,” which also opens Friday (August 17).

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