The Boys of Summer

Illustration by Crystal ShrimpPhoto: Melissa Moseley/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.)

The filmmakers’ vantage has its pluses and minuses. The Nanny Diaries opens in the Museum of Natural History, where Annie, a student of anthropology, places Upper East Side child-rearing rituals in a world-historical context and apologizes to the audience in advance for the odd stereotype. Derivative of Mean Girls but very good: Most American movies downplay issues of class and privilege; this one creates museum tableaux to illustrate them. But what follows is nothing but stereotypes—and an argument for why anthropology should inform drama rather than shape it. Your first look at a character tells you everything you need to know. As you watch the nannies mistreated and the children left to cry themselves to sleep, the only surprise is that there are no surprises. It’s zombie-land.

Linney looks sleek and pretty. She’s the best thing in the film, although she has given this performance before, her face a tight mask under which you catch glimpses of a frightened human being. In some ways, she kills the comedy—poor Mrs. X is so obviously suffering. (In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep didn’t let the flickers of humanity upstage the mythic bitchery.) But Johansson is even less of a comedian. She’s funny when she uses her drugged sexiness to convey lazy entitlement, as in Ghost World. But peppy and eager to please is a stretch. She’s uncommitted from the outset. As Mr. X, the myopic horndog mergers-and-acquisitions tycoon, Paul Giamatti seems just as checked-out as his character. Alicia Keys plays the free-spirited black friend and Chris Evans the rich guy upstairs—the “Harvard hottie” whose ardor allows Annie to reject the Upper East Side but potentially marry into it. The movie shouldn’t open in the Museum of Natural History but the Museum of the Moving Image—with a display of chick-flick clichés through the ages.

The documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters sounds like a grups’ dream—it centers on men who have never stopped trying to set records in classic arcade games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Q*bert, etc. I sympathize: In my twenties, I hung out at a Boston dive bar with another young film critic (let’s call him, oh, Onan Gliberperson) drinking pint after pint of Bass Ale and playing Donkey Kong well into the night. Then the game began to play me. Half asleep on my bed, I’d swear I’d just reached level seven. Anyway, Seth Gordon’s movie doesn’t get into the addiction part. The main characters are the legendary “gamer of the century” demigod Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, a family man who, in 2003, loses his job at Boeing and retreats to play the Kong in his garage—where he videotapes himself blasting Mitchell’s old record to smithereens.

There’s no doubt which side director Gordon is on. Mitchell is a dark, bearded glowerer who dispatches goons to take apart Wiebe’s machine to check for improprieties. He also declares that a record isn’t valid unless the game is played in public. After Wiebe jets to New Hampshire to play the game in public—and again bests Mitchell’s record—Mitchell sends a tape of himself scoring higher. In private! It’s not just Mitchell who makes you furious; it’s also his acolytes, who are like shifty Republican operatives decrying voter fraud while fiddling with Diebold machines. You want to drop barrels on them.

The King of Kong is very entertaining (and doesn’t overstay its welcome) but it’s a little depressing to contemplate. Are there any arenas in which Americans don’t want to compete and conquer? Wiebe seems too nice a guy (with too nice a wife and kids) to waste any more time on that bloody game. He could do so many other things with his spare time—even film criticism.

If you’ve never seen a Johnnie To crime picture, Exiled (opening August 31) is a simple, stylish, and utterly delightful introduction. It doesn’t have the sociological sweep of To’s Triad Election double bill or the cheeky media satire of his Breaking News. It’s in the Sam Peckinpah/Walter Hill archetypal mode. Six gangsters—the most charismatic is Anthony Wong, who played the doomed police chief in Infernal Affairs—can’t bring themselves to execute in cold blood a childhood friend who betrayed the boss and has just turned up in Macao with his wife and a baby. They give him a chance to make some money for his family—but more and more, they become his family. Unlike the jittery, handheld documentary look of new-style American thrillers, Exiled recalls the smooth, gliding, arcing camera of Sergio Leone, the antagonists facing one another impassively in sunglasses and long coats while the camera confidently takes the measure of the space. The ensemble shoot-outs are a bit of a muddle, but they’re certainly colorful—the puffs of smoke around the falling bodies are crimson. By the time Exiled comes to its bloody, heartbreaking finale, you’ll wish you could see these actors’ faces in every crime thriller.

Late August is often when studios purge their stinkers, but the Weinstein Company says that’s not why The Nanny Diaries is opening now. The film was first set for April, then moved to September 7, and then to August 24. Harvey Weinstein told the New York Post that the switch was because Lionsgate moved its Russell Crowe–Christian Bale Western, 3:10 to Yuma, to September 7: “They threw a $75 million movie at us … that would compete with us for females.”

Directed by Greg Mottola. Columbia Pictures. R.

The Nanny Diaries
Directed by Robert Pulcini. Weinstein Company. PG-13.

King of Kong
Directed by Seth Gordon.Picturehouse. PG-13.

Directed by Johnnie To. Magnolia Pictures. R.


The Boys of Summer