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Nerd Mentality 

Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow is turning the fantasy of dork power into a film industry standard -- with frequently hilarious results. But in a series of outings, the romantic success of his heroes gets ever more unlikely. Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin starred Steve Carell in the title role as a stubbornly happy man resigned to romantic failure. Carell, of course, is fit and handsome, so we don't have to strain hard to accept his ultimate involvement with Catherine Keener, an attractive woman about his own age. Everybody got younger in Knocked Up with Seth Rogen as a tubby late-twentysomething layabout who gets improbably lucky with gorgeous TV reporter Katherine Heigl. Now in Superbad, Apatow and his collaborators have moved to high school, where the basic formula is the same: outcasts rule.

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg with Apatow producing, Superbad is the story of three high-school losers anxious to shed their virginity before going off to college in the fall. Failing that or maybe as a vehicle to that, they'd really like to get invited to a wild graduation party. The three guys mostly hang out together, play computer games and click onto pornographic Web sites. Nobody ever invites them to anything. They are routine targets of school bullies. And they've never had dates, at least partly because they can barely speak to girls without babbling.

Our heroes are Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Evan (Michael Sera) and, most centrally, Seth (Jonah Hill) -- note that the screenwriters have named the last two after themselves. Fogell is the stereotypical geek with black-rimmed glasses and an inappropriate adenoidal laugh. Evan is an average-looking boy, tallish but slump-shouldered and very thin. He's the smartest and the least nerdy of our trio, and his pariah social status derives largely from a lack of self-confidence. Seth, quite consciously I'm sure, suggests what Seth Rogen's Ben Stone character in Knocked Up was perhaps like in high school. Seth is significantly overweight and a serious slob. He also suffers from appallingly poor judgment. When he gets a natural chance to interact with a pretty girl in his class, he pantomimes obscene acts rather than seize the opportunity to engage her in civil conversation. Seth doesn't know how to act, of course, and that makes it difficult for him to overcome the disadvantages of his appearance.

The plot of Superbad makes all the usual stops of comedies in this genre. The boys are cauldrons of bubbling hormones. They've never had any sexual experience, but they talk about it all the time with the explicitness of characters in Clerks or, for that matter, in Knocked Up. Viewers offended by this kind of frank dialogue are strongly advised to make another moviegoing choice. Seth and Evan have each selected a fantasy girlfriend among their classmates. Fogell, intoxicated by the very idea of sex, hasn't concentrated on a single girl but imagines himself as the central figure in an endless orgy.

Before the boys can achieve actual sexual contact with actual girls, however, they have to get to that wild party. Pure contrivance lands them an invitation to the standard blowout at the home of a girl whose parents are out of town. Seth, Evan and Fogell can participate if they can score the booze. Thus the first half of the picture involves their stumbling efforts to wield Fogell's fake I.D. in pursuit of enough liquor to inebriate the entire senior class.

In the high-school world that I experienced, kids were extremely status-conscious and sometimes unforgivably mean. The outcasts had little chance to succeed socially because members of the in-group were so protective of, and so routinely insecure about, their own social situation. Judd Apatow creates better worlds than the one I knew. He creates the world of Knocked Up, where a doofus can end up with a beauty queen. And he creates the world of Superbad, where our heroes aren't really the outcasts they think they are. Apatow's women are notable jewels. Katherine Heigl's Alison in Knocked Up is as sweet as she is beautiful. The same is true of Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and Jules (Emma Stone), Evan's and Seth's crushes in Superbad. I don't believe these girls for a second. But I find the optimism of their creation infectious.

Superbad uses its raunchy talk as a launching pad for promoting the virtues of kindness, tolerance, inclusiveness, thoughtfulness and, above all, friendship. In their rocky journey in search of sexual experience, the boys recognize more clearly what they mean to each other. And they come to see the objects of their desire no longer in their sexual aspect alone but as human beings with vulnerabilities like their own. Quite obviously, that's very nice. Along the way, despite the vomiting and other gross-out jokes, the picture delivers comedy that sometimes makes you scream with laughter.

click to enlarge Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Seth (Jonah Hill) and - Evan (Michael Cera) scheme their way toward social - acceptance, popularity and maybe even female - companionship in Superbad. - 2007 COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • 2007 Columbia Pictures
  • Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) scheme their way toward social acceptance, popularity and maybe even female companionship in Superbad.
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