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The Boys of Summer

Judd Apatow & Co. take the teen sex comedy to a whole new level. The Nanny Diaries doesn’t raise the chick-flick bar.


Illustration by Crystal Shrimp  

Superbad might be the most provocative teen sex comedy ever made; it is certainly one of the most convulsively funny. Its protagonists are graduating high-school buddies swimming in hormones and uncertainty. Seth (Jonah Hill) is blobby and loud; Evan (Michael Cera) skinny, hysterical, and a tad girlish. (Think Mostel and Wilder in The Producers.) A virgin and likely to remain so for some time, Seth talks of nothing but sex—a nonstop stream of F- and P- and D-words that would make David Mamet sit up and salute. The more prepossessing Evan is embarrassed by his friend’s sexist ejaculations; he respects women—from afar. (He shifts and stammers around the cute female classmate flashing him the tongue.) Both look to a party that evening for resolution. Their task is to procure alcohol, which Seth is sure will get them laid. In the course of their odyssey, they plunge into a night world of sex, drugs, and aggression in which no one’s development is unarrested.

The co-producer is Judd Apatow, of Knocked Up, the co-writer Seth Rogen of the same. Some right-wing commentators pretzeled themselves up to praise that film—which had naughty words and drugs and premarital sex but, hallelujah, came down squarely on the side of family values. The same is true of Superbad, but the pretzels will have to be even twistier. Apatow and company (the director here is Greg Mottola) have a pipeline to the adolescent id and a little too much fun frolicking in its hot springs of obscenity. If teens come away with the message that booze and sex and drugs can’t buy them love (or happiness), they’ll also feel the compulsion to talk dirty, drink, fuck, and learn the lesson for themselves—as well they should, provided they don’t kill themselves doing it.

Superbad is like American Graffiti, with a crucial difference: The adults are as childlike and out of control as the children (if not more so). In George Lucas’s funny-sad paean to lost innocence, the teens sabotaged a police cruiser; in Superbad, two drunken cops (Rogen and Bill Hader, a master of deadpan dementia) shoot up their own car to impress Seth and Evan’s dorky friend, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Dispatched to buy the booze, Fogell has created a fake I.D. bearing the one-word pseudonym “McLovin”—a name that will live, I predict, as long as teen movies. He’s so endearingly not a McLovin that you can almost understand the policemen’s infatuation with him. He is the primordial, Jungian dork within us all.

By the time the cops are firing guns in juvenile ecstasy, the movie has entered a fugue state. Adam Sternbergh in this magazine called those unable to let go of childhood “grups,” while writer Christopher Noxon has dubbed them “rejuveniles”: Whatever you call them, Apatow has become their Florenz Ziegfeld—and maybe, too, their David Lynch. Still in search of alcohol, Seth and Evan stumble into a grown-up inferno in which hairy men inexplicably punch one another to a pulp. An addled redneck cokehead makes Evan sing for him, while a busty babe who dirty-dances with the enraptured Seth leaves his trousers smeared with menstrual blood. It’s like the “candy-colored clown they call the sandman” sequence in Blue Velvet. The donkey scene in Pinocchio also comes to mind. This is where delinquents go to degenerate.

At close to two hours, Superbad feels fifteen minutes too long, although Mottola and writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg want to take you past the high to the inevitable plummet. No American Pie climactic couplings here. Instead: puke and loathing. The filmmakers linger on the homoerotic undercurrents of adolescent male friendship in a way that other teen sex comedies avoid like the (gay) plague. That’s what makes Superbad so vital—and so of its time. In the seventies and eighties, even explicit teen sex comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High unfolded in a culture with a fair amount of shame. Now, with Fast Times and American Pie as touchstones, with MySpace turning even shy people into exhibitionists, filmmakers can begin where their predecessors ended. Soon it might not be repression we have to worry about but having nothing left to repress.

The Nanny Diaries, based on Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s best-selling novel (a roman à clef), is a grim slog. Scarlett Johansson plays Annie, an unaffected, adorably clumsy Jersey girl who “doesn’t know who she is.” Shanghaied in Central Park by Mrs. X (Laura Linney), she is thrust into the Upper East Side world of inattentive gazillionaires, self-obsessed trophy wives, and children at once spoiled and neglected. The perspective of the writer-directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor), is both contemptuous and envious—which is honest, I suppose, given New York’s ever-burgeoning income gap and the bitterness of its have-nots and have-not-enoughs. (That ambivalence is, admittedly, a motif of this magazine, which the heroine dips into before taking her job.)

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